In what amounted to a playoff game, the Carolina Hurricanes bested the Buffalo Sabres in overtime, 3-2, to move into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Here are five observations from the Canes' 3-2 win.
1. It took a game-winning overtime goal for people to stand up and talk about Jamie McBain, but the rookie defenseman has been gradually improving his offensive production. When the calendar flipped to 2011, McBain appeared to finally turn a corner when he registered seven points (one goal, six assists) in an eight-game stretch. But that was followed by a five-game run without a point, and then some erratic point production through mid-February. But including his two-point night Thursday (his first multipoint showing since Jan. 1), McBain has six points in his last eight games at a time in the season when Carolina needs its secondary point producers to step up. He's been regularly getting 19 to 22 minutes a night and his defensive positioning and willingness to be physical has complemented his recent offensive production.
2. The real star of last night's win was Carolina's penalty kill, which held the Sabres without a goal in five power play opportunities. Eight different players had at least three minutes on the kill, two more had more than minutes, and McBain (1:21) and Joni Pitkanen (49 seconds) also contributed. Leading the way where the players you'd expect to star: Tim Gleason, Joe CorvoBryan Allen, Jay Harrison, Brandon Sutter and Patrick Dywer. Allen's five blocked shots were tied for the most on the team with Pitkanen, and the newcomer was a physical force all night.
3. Speaking of the penalty kill, first-liners Eric Staal and Erik Cole continue to be contributors. That's particularly significant in Staal's case because most of the NHL's top scorers do not see significant penalty kill time. Of the league's top 15 point producers, only six average more than a minute of shorthanded time. Chicago has two (Jonathan Toews, 2:01; Patrick Sharp, 1:20), while the other four are Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar (2:00), Dallas' Loui Eriksson (1:34), Anaheim's Corey Perry (1:33) and Staal (1:30). But Staal ranks second best among these six when it comes number of power play goals allowed relative to shorthanded ice time. Here's a look:
Eriksson: 97:15 SHTOI, 7 PPGA = PPGA every 13:53 SHTOI
Staal: 97:03 SHTOI, 10 PPGA = PPGA every 9:43 SHTOI
Toews: 125:08 SHTOI, 13 PPGA = PPGA every 9:38 SHTOI
Kopitar: 128:41 SHTOI, 14 PPGA = PPGA every 9:11 SHTOI
Sharp: 84:27 SHTOI, 12 PPGA = PPGA every 7:07 SHTOI
Perry: 99:28 SHTOI, 15 PPGA = PPGA every 6:38 SHTOI
(SHTOI - Shorthanded time on ice; PPGA - Power play goals against)
Of course, these numbers aren't perfect — you have to consider the circumstances of the kill, who the players work with when shorthanded, the goaltenders, ect. But it does indicate that Staal has become one of the most well-rounded players in the game. Is he on par with Pavel Datsyuk or Ryan Kesler when it comes to defensive acumen? Of course not. But the fact that he is a top-15 scorer, one of the game's best power play point producers, and now a steady shorthanded contributor shows how vital Staal is to Carolina's success.
4. This was discussed in Wednesday's Five Observations, but is worth mentioning again: the addition of Allen has given Carolina incredible balance on the blue line. Here's the time on ice rundown from Thursday's game against the Sabres:
It can't be overstated how important it is to keep your defense fresh down the stretch. With a night of travel and a game Friday on tap for the Canes, having their defenders evenly sharing the workload should do a world of good compared to running Pitkanen and Corvo into the ground with ice times creeping toward 30 minutes. Throw in the fact they were able to do it in the biggest game of the year, and GM Jim Rutherford has to be thrilled with how his changes on D have morphed the way Carolina approaches its game management.
5. Thomas Vanek could have easily been the hero last night. Instead, he was the goat. Not only was Buffalo's top sniper a minus-2 on the night, but he blew two golden scoring opportunities and his stat line reads: Shots on goal, 0; Missed shots, 3. Having your sniper not finishing easy chances is the equivalent of having your 6-8 defenseman not recording any hits or your Vezina-winning goalie looking lost on two of three goals allowed. Buffalo's best players were, simply put, not their best performers Thursday.