Faced with another do-or-die game Wednesday, the Carolina Hurricanes responded with an impressive 6-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens at the RBC Center. With Buffalo topping the Rangers, the Canes now trail both teams by three points with five games remaining, and are five back of the Habs with a game in hand. Here are five observations from Wednesday's win.
1. Carolina didn't go as young as many expected this season, with only Jamie McBain and Jeff Skinner earning full-time roles with the team. Justin Peters has served as the No. 2 goalie all season but appeared in just 12 games and started only nine. Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe have all spent portions of the season in Raleigh, but none have stuck with the Canes for the whole campaign. On Wednesday, Skinner and McBain showed why they have earned their spots with the Hurricanes. Both tallied two goals and Skinner added an assist in what was the latest in a series of "biggest game of the year" outings. Skinner seems to be over the mid-season mini slump he was in around the All-Star break, and McBain has bounced back from a shoulder injury to register three points in three games since returning to the lineup.But the biggest progress has been in their defensive contributions. While neither is going to make their name in their own end, both McBain and Skinner continue to grow in their all-around game. For the second straight night, McBain led the team in blocked shots with four, while Skinner continues to improve on a nightly basis. Yes, there are still moments where McBain looks a little lost or Skinner fails to make the smart play and get the puck deep. But on the whole, the duo is doing their part in their own end and not sacrificing offense to do it.
2. Cam Ward has saved his best for last this season. With the book closed on March for the Canes, Ward went 8-4-1 with a 2.14 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. That at least matches his December in which he was 6-3-1 with a 2.15 GAA and .941 save percentage. March has historically been one of Ward's best months, but April has not been so kind to the 27-year-old goalie. He owns an 8-8 career record in April and has posted a winning record in the month only once, when he went 3-1 down the stretch in 2008-09 when the Canes eventually went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Otherwise, his goals-against average has been at 3-plus goals each year and his save percentage dipped below .890 in three of the other four seasons. Ward has been the Canes’ meal ticket all season, so he'll need to be at his best in April for the team to surpass at least one team and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
3. Captain Eric Staal is surely battling some kind of nagging injury, but that hasn't kept him from contributing to the team's recent success, even if it's not in the form of goals. Despite taking two penalties in the game, Staal's overall defensive performance was very good against the Habs, including another night when he won more faceoffs (10) than he lost (nine). And while he hasn't been himself in the offensive zone, he's still managed six points in his last six games and has been good enough that the Skinner-Jussi Jokinen-Tuomo Ruutu line doesn't face shutdown lines and D pairings every shift.
4. As for that second scoring line, they dominated the opposition the past two nights. Ruutu has been an absolute wrecking ball — literally, in you take into account his glass-shattering check of Montreal's Hal Gill in the third period — while Skinner is again oozing confidence, and Jokinen brings a perfect balance of scoring, playmaking and defensive smarts to the line. Skinner and Jokinen both have clutch reputations, but it's been Ruutu who has not only set the tone for the line, but the entire team the past week. His forechecking directly led to the game's first goal, a tally by Skinner, and his team-high five hits paced Carolina to a 27-10 edge in hits.
5. It's hard to believe that Bowman's assist on McBain's second goal was his first point in 18 games this season. The rookie forward, who has been sharing the third- and fourth-line left wing spot with Jiri Tlusty, has certainly had his chances to score but has been unable to break the ice. There's still moments when the usually responsible Bowman fails to pick up his man in his own end — a first-period two-on-one rush for the Habs was created, in part, by Bowman's failure to hustle back to get in the play — but he has upped his physicality and kept his stick in passing lanes most of the time. One can't help bit think that once Bowman gets his first goal of the season, he'll see them come in bunches. His two career NHL goals? Both came on the same night against Tampa Bay in the second-to-last game of the 2009-10 season.