The Carolina Hurricanes won the special teams battle in an unconventional way Friday, scoring twice shorthanded and tallying on the power play with less than 90 seconds left to topple the Sabres in Buffalo, 4-3, for their second straight.
Much like Wednesday's win vs. Boston, the Canes got three-zone contributions from the entire lineup. Eight players registered a point, but no one managed a multiple-point effort.
1. There was a time when the Hurricanes were considered a finesse team, one that could be pushed around at both end of the rink. No more. The Hurricanes' transformation into a more physical team really started last season when Tuomo Ruutu played a full season and finished among the league leaders in hits. Despite the departure of Erik Cole, the Canes look even tougher this year. Jiri Tlusty has added jam to the third line, while Tim Gleason looks like the player he was two seasons ago. But the biggest difference comes in the form Bryan Allen. Allen set the tone for the game with a big open ice hit on Sabres captain Jason Pominville. Allen was rightfully assessed an interference penalty on the play — the puck, which had been in Pominville's feet, had squirted away at the time of the hit — but it was a clean shoulder-to-body shot that dazed Pominville but did not hurt him (he returned shortly after). Allen also smartly avoided a retribution fight with fourth liner Cody McCormick, a trade off that would have benefited Buffalo. Furthermore, the penalty call didn't deter Allen from being physical the rest of the way. There's no doubt the Canes won the battle of brawn Friday.
2. Jeff Skinner's game-winning goal was a thing of beauty, with Jussi Jokinen finding the sophomore forward for the winner on the power play with just 1:24 left in the game. But the real special teams win came on the penalty kill. Not only did Carolina shut down a power play that was 2-for-5 coming in to the game, but they scored twice shorthanded. First, Brandon Sutter scored unassisted when he motored away from Sabres d-man Christian Ehrhoff and froze goalie Ryan Miller with a deke to tie the game with only 12 seconds left in the first period. Then 6:59 into the second, Tim Brent got his first goal as a Cane, benefiting from Tlusty's coast-to-coast rush when the Czech forward placed a perfect right pad shot on Miller that bounced right to Brent on the 2-on-1 for a 3-2 lead. Carolina exploited Buffalo's biggest weakness (their over-aggression) throughout the game, but never more than they did when they were down a man.
3. Coach Paul Maurice finally split up his two top guns, moving Skinner to a line with Chad LaRose and Jokinen while flanking Eric Staal with Ruutu and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Both impacted the score — Skinner had the game-winner while Staal, for the second straight game, supplied a great screen on a goal (Jay Harrison's first period marker) — and Staal certainly had his chances, including a breakaway that was stopped by Miller. But it's hard to look at the box score and not notice Staal at a minus-3, pushing him to a league-worst minus-8. On the whole, Carolina's plus/minus is in the dumps — with the exception of the pairing of Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen, who are a league-best plus-7 and plus-5, respectively, and still have not been on the ice for a goal against since they were put together — and Staal's minus-8 is not reflective of his play. But it's a stat people look at, and the perception that Staal is struggling will be rampant if that number doesn't improve. With just one even-strength point to his credit, Staal's path to digging out of his plus/minus hole comes not defensively, but on offense.
Number To Know
58 — Faceoff wins for Sutter, the most in the NHL. Granted, the Hurricanes have played five games, giving Sutter the edge on the rest of the league, but he has won 61.7 percent of his draws (58 of 94) for the 11th-best win percentage in the NHL. He's been even better shorthanded, winning 17 of 25 (68 percent) with the Canes down a man. Turn back the clock to last Oct. 29 and you'll find that Sutter had gone 2-for-16 against Pittsburgh and had won just 30.2 percent of his faceoffs on the young season, far and away the worst in the NHL. Obviously, this illustrates a monumental improvement.
Cam Ward — Let's just get this out there: just about everyone takes Ward for granted. The Hurricanes goalie is yet to enter his prime and he's already the most accomplished goalie in franchise history. He outdueled Miller by stopping 39 of 42 shots and blanked the Sabres on the power play. Buffalo had 11:27 with the man-advantage in seven opportunities, but could not crack Ward. Even the three goals he allowed at even strength can hardly be pinned on Ward. In all, a stellar performance.
Chad LaRose — LaRose was his normal, active self, registering four shots in 14:40 of ice time, but he was tonight's winner of the Bad Penalty Award. LaRose took a high-stick penalty in the second, and later was the culprit in a too many men on the ice call even though that one will go down as a bench minor. LaRose also had 3:35 of power play time despite having just two career PPGs in 411 NHL games. Where LaRose is slotted — on the first line, with the man-advantage, wherever — is out of his control, and he can't be faulted for giving his best effort, as he always does. But if he is going to play a top-six role, the Canes cannot afford to have him taking two bad penalties in a tight game.