Brandon Sutter has taken on the NHL’s top lines night in and night out this season, yet still leads the Hurricanes with an impressive plus-10. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes had two vastly different efforts in their back-to-back road games against Toronto and Ottawa but got the same result in both: two points. The wins pushed the Canes two games above .500 (17-15-4) and within striking distance of Atlanta and Montreal for seventh and eighth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference. Here are five observations from Carolina’s two victories.
1. Zach Boychuk's two goals Wednesday at Ottawa didn't announce his arrival as an NHL player, it confirmed them. Boychuk’s play against Toronto showed that the 21-year-old winger was ready to put forth the kind of effort needed to compete in the NHL shift after shift, and the end of that game — when he assisted on Patrick Dwyer's game-winning goal — and beginning of the Senators game saw him rewarded for his hard work. That doesn't mean their won't be bumps in the road for the former first round pick — his late penalty Tuesday could have erased not only the Hurricanes' one-goal lead, but potentially shattered Boychuk's burgeoning confidence — but you feel like he is on the cusp of establishing himslef as a player who will be with Carolina for the long haul.
2. Here at Five Obs, we've touted Cam Ward's play over and over again. It's hard not to do it again. Ward was clearly better — as was the team in front of him — in Wednesday's shutout win than the 4-3 victory over Toronto, but in both games the Carolina goaltender not only showed his ability to stop pucks, but did so at crucial times. His December was amazing: 22 goals allowed in 11 appearances with a 6-3-1 record. In seven of those games he had at least 34 saves and six times posted a save percentage higher than .950. On the season, his .927 save percentage is good for third in the NHL and his 16 wins are four behind league leader Carey Price. Price, Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick and Ondrej Pavelec should all get All Star spots, and it's hard to argue against Ward getting one of the remaining two.
3. For as good as Ward was, Senators goalie Brian Elliott was not. The goal he allowed to Patrick Dwyer early in the third period was the nail in the coffin, and it was about as soft a goal as you will see in the NHL. The wraparound goal Boychuk tallied to open scoring was "a tough one to give up," according to Ottawa coach Cory Clouston. Elliott had been a thorn in Carolina's side the past two seasons, going 3-1 and performing well, but this year he is 1-2 with a 4.46 goals-against average and .853 save percentage against the Canes.
4. With Joni Pitkanen out of the lineup Wednesday, Jay Harrison went from 14:13 of ice time Tuesday to 21:16 against the Sens. He was key in shutting down Ottawa on the power play, logging a team-high 3:07 on the kill Wednesday, and was rewarded with a plus-2 night and a "help" on Ward's second shutout of the season. Replacing Pitkanen's minutes is difficult — especially when call-up Bryan Rodney plays just 9:16 (all even strength) — but Carolina looked good on defense despite the absence of No. 25. You can thank the extra contributions of Harrison and Ian White, and rock-solid efforts from the remainder of the D for that.
5. Is it too early to talk Selke Trophy contenders? I say no, so here goes. Brandon Sutter has emerged as one of the NHL's top shutdown centers, and while it goes beyond numbers it is worth mentioning how he measures up statistically. And this one really jumps off the page:
He has not had a night this season with anything worse than a minus-1.
That may not sound like much, but if you peruse NHL.com’s statistical data, you would have to get to the league's 60th scoring center, Nashville's Colin Wilson, to find another player who shares that statistic with him, and Wilson is far from a shutdown player. His plus-10 is tied for 10th among NHL centers and the best among those on non-playoff teams. He blocks shots (31, leading all Carolina forwards), and takes on the opposition’s best every night. Yes, his faceoff numbers are alarming (42 percent), but he more than makes up for it with his heady play in all three zones. Throw in a little added snarl, and Sutter is fast-emerging as a defensive force to be reckoned with.