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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Canes beat Penguins, fall to Habs

Posted by on Sun, Feb 27, 2011 at 10:04 AM

There is no equivalent in hockey to baseball's closer, but Hurricanes fans wish there were.

Eric Staal missed Saturdays game after a high, hard hit from the Penguins Matt Niskanen as the Canes split games this weekend.
  • File photo by Peggy Boone
  • Eric Staal missed Saturday's game after a high, hard hit from the Penguins' Matt Niskanen as the Canes split games this weekend.
Carolina split back-to-back games this weekend, handling the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 in Raleigh on Friday night before losing 4-3 on a late power-play goal by the Canadiens in Montreal on Saturday. The inability to get a tied game into overtime to at least secure a point in Montreal dissipated some of the good vibes from a complete team victory over the Penguins despite the loss of captain Eric Staal to injury.

So there's good news and bad news.

The good news is that last week's additions of ex-Cane Cory Stillman and Derek Joslin are working out just fine, thank you very much. On Stillman's second shift Friday on a line with Erik Cole, he flung a perfect backhanded pass diagonally across the neutral zone to hit Cole in stride coming down the wing. Their immediate chemistry was startling, as Cole notched a goal and an assist against the Penguins and Stillman tallied versus Montreal.

Joslin, who had been far down the depth chart in the San Jose organization, also fit in nicely, picking up a pair of assists in the Pittsburgh game. His decisiveness at moving the puck out of the defensive zone started several rushes and helped the Canes look like a much faster team than the Penguins.

Jussi Jokinen scored in both games to run his goal-scoring streak to three games. Don't look now, but the Canes have become a team that is getting goals from all parts of its lineup. Jokinen, Cole, and Tuomo Ruutu should join Staal and Jeff Skinner in the 20-goal club before season's end.

The blueline is also contributing more to the scoring lately. Defensemen accumulated two goals and four assists against the Penguins. Joe Corvo potted his tenth on the year on a power play Friday night. Jay Harrison opened the scoring versus Pittsburgh, his second straight game with a goal. Harrison was, however, scratched from the lineup in Montreal, which makes one wonder if something's up with the trading deadline on Monday.

Now, to the bad news. In the second period on Friday night, Eric Staal was decked by a hard, marginal hit from new Penguin defender Matt Niskanen. No penalty was called on the play. Staal's injury is listed as an "upper body" concern, which in the hockey world could mean a broken finger or a concussion. Even when the video replay of the hit is scrutinized, it's difficult to tell if Niskanen made contact with Staal's head, but from how Staal fell it seems likely he sustained a concussion. Staal sat out the Montreal game but the team expects him to return on Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers in Raleigh.

Presuming Staal's okay, the worst news is the continuing failure to keep opponents from scoring late in regulation. Every team on the schedule is desperate for points, and the Canes are leaving points on the table. The Thrashers, who seem to be fading out of the playoff race, recently scored late to get a point out of overtime. The Rangers tied a game late and then won in the shootout to exact a three point swing over the Canes. And now the Canadiens kept the Canes from getting at least a point by scoring on their only power play of the game with under five minutes left in regulation. It's a worrisome trend, and a difficult one to address.

The best way to address it, however, would be some improvement on special teams. The Canes rank in the mid-20s in the league both shorthanded and with the man advantage. Stillman's presence bolstered a power play on Friday that produced the Corvo goal but the Canes failed to convert on all four chances in Montreal. The Habs, however, cashed in on their only man advantage.

Another down note that's a bit hard to write is the possibility that super-rookie Jeff Skinner might be hitting the wall. As the physicality of the games has increased, the eighteen-year-old's scoring has fallen off. His assist against the Habs was his first point in four games. Skinner's line needs to produce goals more consistently than that. Expect coach Paul Maurice to tinker with line combinations on Tuesday to see if something begins to click.

The Buffalo Sabres have closed to within two points of Carolina, and have two games in hand on the Canes. When the Sabres visit on Thursday night for the first of their three remaining games against Carolina, the Canes have to be thinking about a regulation win rather than just staying in the game or giving themselves a chance to win a close one in the end. A knockout punch needs to be added to the arsenal.

Many players will change teams over the next twenty-four hours. Although general manager Jim Rutherford is probably pretty happy with his lineup as it is, he would probably pounce on an opportunity to add a piece anywhere but in net.

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