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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Canes gel on the road to lead division

Posted by on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 at 7:27 AM

FOX SPORTS CAROLINAS (TV)—Remember grumbling about the Hurricanes a couple weeks ago? In a word, they were middling. They'd win one and then lose one, very Jekyll and Hyde.

It turns out that they just needed a little trip.

Eric Staal is among the league scoring leaders after Carolinas 4-1-1 road trip.
  • Photo by Chris Baird
  • Eric Staal is among the league scoring leaders after Carolina's 4-1-1 road trip.
The Canes completed their season-high six-game road trip last night in New Jersey with a flourish of muscle and skill, dumping the conference-leading Devils 4-2. Carolina's 4-1-1 trip pushes then to the top of their division at the quarter turn of the lockout-shortened season, as the inconsistency that plagued the Canes seems to have spread to the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning.

The trip started off with a familiar ring, though—a gutsy 5-3 loss in Philadelphia. Backup goaltender Dan Ellis, fresh off a shutout of Ottawa in Raleigh, earned a second consecutive start, raising murmurs about the depth chart in net. But Ellis gave way to Cam Ward after 40 minutes, and Ward's been in net ever since.

The Canes got back on track in Toronto as Jordan Staal netted his first goal with the Canes in a 4-1 win. Ward stole the show, however, putting up a wall in a third period that saw the Leafs throw everything at the net. He finished with 41 saves on the night.

Ward made it two straight in a dogfight in Ottawa, stopping 45 shots as Jay Harrison's overtime goal downed the Senators, 3-2. Although Ottawa carried play all game, Alexander Semin's power-play goal midway through the third period stretched the game into overtime.

The Canes played more than 60 minutes again in a return to Philadelphia. Danny Briere tucked in the winner for the Flyers, but the play of the game was Ward's dazzling save on Matt Read at the end of regulation to keep the game tied. Points are precious already. That save was worth exactly one.

Carolina headed next to Long Island to win a wild, 6-4 affair over the Islanders on Monday night. Despite giving up four power-play goals to the home squad, the Canes' first line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty, and Semin each pumped in a goal in the first half of the third period to erase a deficit. Semin's tally was the 200th goal of his career.

That momentum carried into New Jersey the following night, as Tlusty scored a pair of goals for the second consecutive night. Ward's fifth straight start saw him out-duel Martin Brodeur, fending off enormous pressure from the Devils late in the game. Joni Pitkanen, however, didn't finish the game with an injury.

Carolina now returns to Raleigh for a Thursday tilt with Toronto. They return with an identity that they didn't have when they headed off two weeks ago with an even record. This is an energy team now. They move their feet. They skate. They crunch you in the corners. They're fierce along the wall and come out of scrums with the puck.

Carolina's goalie is calm and agile now, diving across the goal to keep the game tied in New Jersey as the puck trickled past the post in the final minute, then springing to his feet to be ready for a wraparound attempt. Ward's won a shootout and a nailbiter in the last 48 hours.

And the team's top line is rolling. All five of Tlusty's goals this season came on this road swing. Staal and Tlusty each had nine points on the trip, and Semin added five. Staal is fifth in the league in goals with eight in 12 games. The power play is stirring as well, going 5-for-23 on the trip.

Most importantly, the team has found a way to focus on doing what needs to be done each night to win a game. Goals against are now shrugged off, including a weird one in New Jersey when Ilya Kovalchuk's score was only caught by video review after several minutes of continued play. The fragile team that Carolina was two weeks ago might have crumbled after that blow.

But the Canes are not that team anymore.

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