In the Hurricanes’ latest biggest game of the season, it was the their youngest players who came to the forefront.
Rookies Jamie McBain and Jeff Skinner each scored 2 goals to help Carolina to a 6-2 win over the visiting Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday. Skinner’s efforts came just 4:05 apart in the first period as the Canes stormed out to a quick lead and never looked back.
Skinner would go on to add an assist on Joni Pitkanen’s second-period tally and finished tied with linemate Jussi Jokinen for a game-high plus-4 plus/minus rating. McBain’s effort gave him the first multi-goal game of his career and 3 points in three games since returning from a shoulder injury that kept him out for two weeks.
Led by those two players, the Canes won on consecutive nights for the first time since a late December trip through Toronto and Ottawa and remained three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with five games left on the schedule.
“You hope that they can survive them, except here now they’re excelling in them,” said Maurice of his young players playing in crucial late-season games. “That’s just a great sign.”
With the Buffalo Sabres defeating the New York Rangers on Wednesday, the Canes didn’t close the gap on the team they’ve been chasing for the past several weeks. However, the outcome did allow the Canes to close within three of the Rangers, giving them another team to target down the stretch.
The Canes' head-to-head win over Montreal also brings them within five of the Canadiens, who have lost four of their last five.
While the Canes may not be able to control what those teams do, they’re confident that their own play will give them a fighting chance at the postseason.
“I enjoyed the last two games that we’ve played as much as any games this year and maybe going back to the season we went to the conference final,” said Maurice. “The feel on the bench is right. They’re doing their best.”
“Things are looking really good,” said Cam Ward, who finished with 38 saves for the second night in a row. “We’re playing really well and playing with some confidence, and that’s what you need to do, especially at this time of year. You can’t play with the fear of the what ifs. You’ve got to take care of your business and enjoy the challenge.”
Skinner’s goals were both nice finishes of plays by Tuomo Ruutu along the boards. On the first, Ruutu put a big hit on defenseman Brent Sopel, causing a turnover and allowing the 18-year-old Calder Trophy favorite to walk in and beat Carey Price between the legs.
“You wonder how much Ruutu can give on back-to-back nights, but then he throws that hit and that’s the goal,” said Maurice. “It’s inspirational to the rest of the hockey club.”
On the line’s next shift, Ruutu won the puck in a battle on the wall and fed Skinner for a highlight-reel breakaway move that he finished with a high backhand. The goal continued good weeks for both players, as they each scored shootout goals in Tuesday’s win over Washington, with Skinner chipping in a goal in regulation time.
“He plays his best hockey in the big games,” said Maurice of Skinner, who has 8 points in his last six contests.
“That’s just what good players do,” said Ward. “They elevate their game when it matters most.”
McBain began his campaign to join Skinner in hat-trick eligibility early in the second period, less than a minute after Mike Cammalleri scored the Canadiens’ first goal to make it 2-1. After a flurry of Hurricanes pressure, the puck bounced off the wall and to McBain on the right point, who one-timed it past Price.
The 23-year-old defenseman would add his second of the night with less than five minutes remaining in the third period, as he carried the puck in on a three-on-one break with Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose before finishing the play himself with a wrist shot that beat Price’s third-period replacement, Alex Auld.
The effort continued an impressive return from injury for McBain, who was initially expected to miss most, if not all, of the remaining regular-season slate.
“Some of the things that you learn as a young player is pain tolerance and what you can play with, so this is good going forward,” said Maurice of McBain, who had previously never missed a game in his NHL career. “Pretty much everything he suffers from here on out, he’s going to want to play because he can still get it done.”
The Canes’ other goals were scored by Pitkanen just three minutes after McBain’s first goal and by Cory Stillman on a late power play that gave the Hurricanes 5 man-advantage goals in their last four games.
Montreal rookie defenseman P.K. Subban, who famously wore Skinner’s jersey during the All-Star Skills Competition held in the same building two months earlier, scored the visitors’ second goal on a third period power-play.
The Hurricanes next head to New York to face the Islanders on Saturday before Sunday’s monumental head-to-head tilt with the Sabres, which could very well prove to be the difference between the postseason and the end of the season.
If their win over Montreal is any indication, the Hurricanes are ready for it.
“Over the last two or three weeks I think we’ve found a bit of an identity,” said Maurice. “The things they’re saying on the bench after adversity or pointing out good plays – you get a sense back there at times that it’s a little more on autopilot now. The players have taken over, and it’s a fun place to be.”
NOTES: Montreal scored both goals on the power play, helping improve a 2-34 stretch over their last 10 games … The Hurricanes improved to 7-11-1 in the second half of back-to-back games … Carolina avoided being swept by Montreal for the first time since the 1983-84 season, when Hartford went 0-7-1 in the season series … Tomas Plekanec had two assists, giving him 9 points in the four-game series.