The Carolina Hurricanes entered the All Star break on a high note, defeating the New York Islanders on Long Island, 4-2, to remain one point out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand on the Atlanta Thrashers. Here are five observations from Wednesday's win.
1. If I had said Eric Staal would have one more point and six more goals than Alex Ovechkin at the 50-game mark, people would've called me crazy. But here are the facts: the Carolina captain currently ranks eighth in the NHL in scoring (52 points) and his 25 goals are tied for seventh in the league while Ovechkin is at 19-32-51. Throw in that three of AO's goals have come with an empty net (Staal has none) and it's hard to argue that Ovechkin isn't even the Southeast Division's third fiddle when it comes to offensive prowess in 2010-11. The Tampa Bay duo of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are first and fifth, respectively, in NHL points, and only those two and Sidney Crosby have more points in the Eastern Conference than Staal.
2. It's not hard to see where the New York Islanders have gone wrong over the past 15 years. Yes, there's the curious front office moves and problems in trying to get an improved arena district. But the real problem is the Isles haven't hit a home run at the draft. Kyle Okposo (seventh overall in 2006) and Josh Bailey (ninth in 2008) are nice players, and 2009 first overall pick John Tavares could score 30 in his second season. But even Tavares' success doesn't carry the oomph of Crosby and Malkin in Pttsburgh, Stamkos in Tampa Bay, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, or even Jeff Skinner in Carolina. Granted Tavares doesn't have a linemate like Stamkos has with St. Louis, but the Islanders inability to land a breakthrough star has stalled their constant rebuilding effort. Injuries have hurt New York this year, but the future continues to look dim unless someone — anyone — can grab the torch and run with it on Long Island.
3. It's encouraging to see the Carolina defense pairings set. Jamie McBain continues to gain confidence as the season progresses, and while his partnership with Joni Pitkanen has led to the occasional breakdown (see Michael Grabner's goal last night), the duo seems to have found chemistry. That allowed Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason to reunite. The pairing has been the Hurricanes' steadiest over the past few seasons, and the same holds true for 2010-11. Ian White was brought to Raleigh to play with Pitkanen (it didn't work out), but he has found chemistry with Jay Harrison. That's not surprising, seeing that they were drafted by the Maple Leafs in back to back seasons and came through the Toronto system together. While the forward lines are still tinkered with from time to time, it seems Paul Maurice has found combinations on defense that will — barring injury — work over the long haul.
4. Brandon Sutter has four goals and six points in his last four games, and while I won't credit Jiri Tlusty with Sutter's scoring breakthrough, we can at least admit that the 22-year-old Czech has filled in admirably for the injured Patrick Dwyer. Dwyer and Tlusty each make just $500,000, while Zach Boychuk — who scored the game's first goal Wednesday — is filling a first-line role at $875,000 ($1.195 million cap hit with bonuses). Sutter will deservedly get a raise next season, but comes in at a bargain $875,000 ($1.225 million cap hit). Throw in AHLer Zac Dalpe and Carolina has top-nine depth on a budget.
5. Troy Bodie's second period fight may not go down as a win for the Carolina winger, but it helped the Canes reset after they gave up the tying goal moments earlier. The Hurricanes had dominated the first period but scored just once, so the game could have easily tipped New York's way when Grabner tied it on a blown defensive assignment. Instead, Bodie scrapped with the NHL's penalty leader, Zenon Konopka, and order was restored when Staal scored twice in a span of less than two minutes. The bonus is it got Konopka, one of the NHL's top faceoff men, off the ice. Faceoffs didn't factor in either goal, but the Bodie-Konopka trade-off is one Maurice would probably take any time.