Tuesday's home game against the Florida Panthers presented a crucial must-win for the Carolina Hurricanes, who sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with Thursday's opponent, the Buffalo Sabres, hot on their heels. While it was far from their best performance, the Canes did what they needed to in defeating their divisional opponent, 2-1, at the RBC Center. Here are five observations from Tuesday's victory.
1. While Cam Ward proved to be the most important player in the lineup Tuesday, it was Cory Stillman who stole the show. The new Hurricane burned his previous team by being in on both Carolina goals, knocking in a loose puck for the game's first goal, then executing a perfect slap pass to Staal on a first-period power play to set up the eventual game-winning goal. Stillman seems rejuvenated since joining Carolina and now has three points (two goals and an assist) in three games since coming back to Raleigh. Furthermore, Stillman is a plus-4 since the trade and he has not been on the ice for any of the opposition's goals.2. Lost in the performances by Ward and Stillman were the two new entries into the lineup, newcomer Bryan Allen and rookie Jerome Samson. Allen led all defensemen with four hits, while Samson looked good in just under eight minutes of ice time. But most noticeable moments for each were defensive plays both made in the third. Allen collapsed back to the net early in the period to pummel a Panthers player and help squash a scoring opportunity, and Samson had a crucial backcheck later in the game that kept Florida from getting a scoring opportunity. While that is Allen's bread and butter, seeing Samson hustle back in his own end only makes him even more viable as one of Carolina's top 12 forwards.
3. The 2003 Entry Draft is considered one of if not the best in NHL history, with Staal going second overall behind only Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, followed by a several top-notch players. But the one player inevitably mentioned whenever the success of the 2003 class is brought up is Hugh Jessiman, who went 12th overall to the Rangers but was never able to crack an NHL lineup. Well, Jessiman finally has. Acquired from Chicago in a deal whose main pieces were Jack Skille and Michael Frolik, Jessiman played his second NHL game Tuesday, most notably man-handling Canes pugilist Troy Bodie in a first period fight. Jessiman may not ever live up to his draft spot — he spent nearly as much time in the box as he did on the ice — but it was good to see his long wait finally over.
4. Jeff Skinner, according to coach Paul Maurice, asked for another crack at the center position. But in the second game of the renewed experiment, neither Skinner nor his linemates (Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose) seemed to get going with Skinner in the middle. While LaRose finished with four shots, both Skinner and Ruutu went without a shot and the line never seemed like much of a threat. Perhaps, with points so crucial over the next 18 games, now is not the time to experiment.
5. The addition of Allen and trust the team has in Jay Harrison meant much more evenly distributed minutes on the blueline. Joni Pitkanen saw little penalty kill time (17 seconds) in the two minutes the Hurricanes had a man in the box, with Allen leading the way with 1:18 followed by Joe Corvo at 1:01, Harrison at 42 seconds, Tim Gleason at 38 seconds and Jamie McBain with just four seconds. That contributed to Pitkanen playing a team-high of just 23:49, significantly less than he would normally play in such a tight game, and Harrison logging a respectable 15:17 as the low man on defense. That kind of balance will serve Carolina well down the stretch, especially in back-to-back games.