|TBL||0||0||0||(0 - 0)||2|
|CAR||0||0||0||(0 - 0)||6|
The math just got a little simpler for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Eric Staal got the Canes off on the right foot once again and Chad LaRose, who had just 15 career goals coming into Wednesday night, notched his first hat trick as Carolina beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-2 to move within two points of clinching the Southeast Division title.
A victory over Florida in the regular-season finale at the RBC Center on Friday night would give the Canes their second division crown in the last three seasons. A loss by Washington in either of its two games remaining would also hand Carolina a playoff berth and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Caps host the Lightning on Thursday night. After the Carolina win, the RBC Center scoreboard wished the Lightning “good luck” in its next game.
“I’ve been watching these games and torturing myself to death, it’s really like getting a root canal, so maybe I’ll get a sitter and grab my wife and go out to dinner,” coach Peter Laviolette said when asked about the close playoff race.
Carolina, breaking its first two-game skid since Feb. 5, improved to 13-1-2 in its last 16 home games as Cam Ward started his 19th straight game.
Matt Cullen returned after missing six games with a head injury, helping the Canes with much needed power-play depth. However, it was diminutive fan favorite LaRose who came up with his first three-goal game in the NHL to spark the Canes in this one.
“Getting a hat trick was icing on the cake,” LaRose said. “I just wanted to play great tonight because it was such a big game and we had a chance to do something great here. We control our own destiny.”
LaRose, who missed eight weeks with a broken leg before returning March 28, took an ice-long feed from Erik Cole and broke in alone on goalie Mike Smith in the waning moments of the key victory. LaRose put on a few moves to get Smith to commit, then stuck a backhander into the goal with 1:39 left to send the crowd into a frenzy as hats stormed the ice surface.
“Good for him because Rosie is just one of those hard-working guys. It’s nice to see him get rewarded by getting those goals,” said Ward, who stopped 23 shots for his 37th win of the season.
Carolina led 2-1 after 20 minutes and added two more in the second period to take control, outshooting Tampa Bay 29-14 through two periods.
LaRose scored his second of the game and 10th of the season 4:31 into the second after gathering in a rebound in the slot and sending it home with Keith Aucoin – who had been cross-checked – sitting in the net.
Carolina’s fourth goal was even more bizarre less than four minutes later when Dennis Seidenberg’s attempted dump in on the power play took a crazy bounce off the boards and ricocheted right into the slot, where Scott Walker had a wide open net as Smith fell behind the goal trying to recover.
Tuomo Ruutu scored another power-play goal early in the third to ice it for the Canes, who have scored impressive 7-1 and 6-2 wins in their last two home games.
The Canes wanted to throw a lot of rubber at Smith early and succeeded, generating 16 first-period shots en route to a 2-1 lead.
Staal gave Carolina a 1-0 advantage less than a minute in for the second time in as many home games, scoring on the game’s first rush 32 seconds in after skating away from Tampa Bay star Vincent Lecavalier near the Canes bench.
“Eric really set the tone,” Ward said. “I’ve seen that shot many times. He has got one of the best. It really set the tempo for the rest of the game.”
“It was awesome,” added Laviolette. “We clearly set the tone in the Atlanta game (a 7-1 win) from the start and his line did it. We didn’t do that same thing last night in Washington. We watched them play and they set the tone. My conversation with him was to make it a point on the first shift because a lot of times other lines will just follow right in and it builds some energy in the building.”
It was nearly 2-0 five minutes later when Ruutu hit the post on a power play, but the Lightning was able to counter with a man-advantage goal of its own as Martin St. Louis wristed one home from the slot.
The Canes regained the lead late in the period when LaRose stuffed home his ninth during a scramble in front of Smith.
“We just kept the foot on the gas and kept playing our game,” Glen Wesley said. “I felt the first two periods were one of our best two of the year.”
“We were excited, we were in our building and we wanted to take advantage,” Staal said of the team’s mood prior to the drop of the puck. “We knew if we competed hard and played our style of game we were going to be rewarded.”
NOTES: Trevor Letowski notched his 200th career point with an assist on Carolina’s second goal. … Justin Williams was scratched after hurting his back in Washington. … Staal has multi-point games in 12 of his last 22. He has 33 points during that span. … LaRose has five points in four games since returning from his injury. … LaRose had just three points in his previous 19 games against Tampa Bay.
|Eric Staal (37) ASST: Erik Cole (28), Bret Hedican (15)|
1 - 0 CAR
|PPG - Martin St. Louis (25) ASST: Jussi Jokinen (25), Vincent Lecavalier (51)|
1 - 1 Tie
|Chad LaRose (9) ASST: Eric Staal (44), Trevor Letowski (9)|
2 - 1 CAR
|Chad LaRose (10) ASST: Tuomo Ruutu (22), Joe Corvo (33)|
3 - 1 CAR
|PPG - Scott Walker (14) ASST: Dennis Seidenberg (14), Frantisek Kaberle (22)|
4 - 1 CAR
|PPG - Tuomo Ruutu (10) ASST: Sergei Samsonov (22), Dennis Seidenberg (15)|
5 - 1 CAR
|PPG - Jeff Halpern (20) ASST: Martin St. Louis (57), Vincent Lecavalier (52)|
5 - 2 CAR
|Chad LaRose (11) ASST: Erik Cole (29)|
6 - 2 CAR
|Doug Janik Slashing against Sergei Samsonov|
|Keith Aucoin Tripping against Matt Smaby|
|Vincent Lecavalier Tripping against Bret Hedican|
|Tuomo Ruutu Slashing against Dan Boyle|
|Andreas Karlsson Hooking against Scott Walker|
|Mike Smith Roughing against Ryan Bayda|
|Tuomo Ruutu Hooking against Martin St. Louis|
|Vincent Lecavalier Interference against Glen Wesley|
|Vincent Lecavalier Unsportsmanlike conduct|
|Chad LaRose Hi-sticking against Alexandre Picard|
|Eric Staal Tripping against Mathieu Darche|
|Joe Corvo Hi-sticking against Doug Janik|
|SA: 32||TOI: 60:00|
|Saves: 26||EV: 20 - 24|
|PIM: 2||PP: 6 - 8|
|SV%: .813||SH: 0 - 0|
|SA: 25||TOI: 60:00|
|Saves: 23||EV: 19 - 19|
|PIM: 0||PP: 3 - 5|
|SV%: .920||SH: 1 - 1|