The Carolina Hurricanes faced the latest in a string of must-win games, this time against one of the league's best teams. The Canes were again up to the task, knocking off the Detroit Red Wings, 3-0, and improving to 7-1-1 in the last nine games. Here are five observations from Wednesday's win.
1. Cam Ward's chances of being among the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy are slim, but it's hard to say he's not deserving. In the past five games, the opposition has scored just eight times on Ward, and no team managed more than two goals. During that stretch, he's stopped 176 of 184 shots (.957 save percentage) and saved his best for Wednesday by earning his fourth shutout of the season with a 42-save effort. His statistics for this season match up with any of Ward's other campains. He has 36 wins (one behind a three-way tie for the league lead; his best was 39 in 2008-09), a .923 save percentage (career best over .916s the past two seasons) and a 2.56 goals-against average (second only to 2.44 in 2008-09) while playing a career high 72 games so far. Anyone who follows Carolina is not surprised by Ward's stellar play in clutch situations, and you can bet that he's the last goalie potential No. 1 seeds Washington and Philadelphia want to see in Round 1.2. Another night, another standout performance from Carolina's rookies. Defenseman Derek Joslin's first goal as a Hurricane came under perfect circumstances: it opened the scoring and was on the power play. His bouncing point shot won't earn him any style points, but his willingness to get the puck to the net with traffic in front led to the goal. Then Jeff Skinner notched his 30th goal by collecting a rebound off a hard Eric Staal shot, looping around the net and stuffing the puck past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard to extend the lead to two. Skinner, in particular, has shown a Ward/Staal-esque ability to raise his level of play in big games, something he did last season in the OHL playoffs when he notched 20 goals in 20 games and nearly led Kitchener to a win over eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor.
Early in the season when it became clear Skinner had earned a season-long spot with Carolina, some here on the site started speculating that he could contribute 30 goals. I promptly shot those suggestions down by simply stating what a rare occurrence it is for a draft year player to contribute so significantly. Plainly put, it take a very special player. And as we've learned over the course of the season, that's exactly what Carolina has in Skinner. I will gladly raise my crow in the air to that.
3. With the good sometimes comes the bad in playing rookies, and Drayson Bowman's double-minor for high-sticking was definitely a tough moment. But Bowman's penalty wasn't an example of youthful exuberance gone wrong, but rather just an unfortunate stick infraction that could've been avoided yet happens to every player at some point in the season. Overall, coach Paul Maurice can't help but be thrilled with Bowman's play, along with that of fellow rookie Jerome Samson. The two young forwards have helped stabilize Carolina's bottom six forwards, and while neither has scored both are certainly lurking.
Reaching the postseason is certainly the top priority, but one has to wonder how Carolina's lineup will look next season with so many young players having success and others ready to contribute. Bowman and Samson seem to have earned roles, while Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk should both be NHLers next season. Joslin looks like the real deal on defense, and Bobby Sanguinetti seems to have his career back on track after losing much of this season to injury. With several players set for free agency, GM Jim Rutherford will have some tough decisions to make as his youth movement goes to the next stage.
4. Even more impressive than the shutout win over the always-good Red Wings was the way in which it was done. In no way did Detroit look flat, and they didn't make many mistakes throughout the game. But somehow Carolina seemed to own the neutral zone — a key to slowing down the puck-possession game plan that has made the Wings so good over the past 20 years — and had an answer for most of Detroit's star players. Sometimes that answer had to be Ward, the final line of defense, but overall the Hurricanes used a team effort to slow the opposition. That started with a decent showing in the faceoff circle (32 wins to Detroit's 34) and carried through all three zones, with forwards backchecking and defensemen limiting the room the Wings' best players had to operate. Overall, it was perhaps Carolina's best performance of the season, regardless of crcumstances.
5. By sitting out practice, Staal has tipped off everyone and their mother that he's playing injured. But that didn't stop the Carolina captain from being a dominant performer Wednesday. He assisted on all three Hurricanes goals, each in a different way. On Joslin's power play marker, Staal simply got the power play settled by gaining the offensive blue line and firing the puck around the boards for a waiting Cory Stillman, who wen to Joslin at the point for the eventual goal. Staal's shot on Skinner's goal was one of those off-the-rush, fired-out-of-a-cannon wristers that Staal has made his trademark, and while Howard stopped it, there was no way to expect him to gather the rebound that Skinner eventually scooped up and put home. Then Staal perfectly executed a transitional play with Erik Cole following the killing off Bowman's four-minute penalty, setting up his long-time teammate for his 25th goal of the season. Staal has points in eight of his last nine games, totaling 12 points over that stretch, and his 75 points through 79 games puts him 11th in the league in scoring. But his willingness to not only play hurt, but play well hurt is why he has a C stitched on his chest.