For the first time this season, the Carolina Hurricanes have won four games in a row, and coach Kirk Muller has the locker room truly believing that a playoff run is within their grasp.
Is a lot of this tire-pumping to give meaning to games that would otherwise be simply playing out the string? Of course; to make the playoffs, the Canes would likely need to win out and get help from above them in the standings in the form of a losing streak. But it's also been undeniably effective, first in consecutive come-from-behind wins on the road this past weekend, and again Wednesday night as the Canes defeated the division-leading Florida Panthers 3-1.
Three Four Observations
1. Joni Pitkanen fit right in during his first game in nearly four months, despite a bad break on the Panthers' only goal when Tomas Fleischmann's backhanded pass attempt from the low slot pinballed off Pitkanen's skate and into the net. That was about the only thing to go wrong for Pitkanen on the night, as he assisted on Eric Staal's insurance goal in the third period and scored the game-winning goal off a perfect Tuomo Ruutu drop pass in the second. Pitkanen was having a great stretch of hockey before his injury, and it looks like the time he took in coming back was well-spent to keep him at that level.
2. The Canes took advantage of a Florida team that was caught napping for the first ten minutes or so, and while Staal's first goal does not count as the game-winner, it was undoubtedly the most important goal the Canes scored on Wednesday. The Panthers started the game looking every bit the part of a team that had played the night before, and had the Canes failed to convert early the night may have had a much different feel. Instead, the Canes were in the driver's seat nearly the entire night.
3. Cam Ward had yet another 30-plus save night. Ho hum. Ward and Jose Theodore put on a goaltending clinic in the second period, with Ward making 16 of his 30 saves in the period and Theodore returning serve with 13 of his own, including a toe save on a wraparound that left Brandon Sutter looking at the rafters in amazement on a mid-period penalty kill. Ward has made 30 or more saves seven times in March, and his record in those games is a remarkable 5-1-1.
4. A bonus observation, but one that I couldn't honestly leave out: kudos to the officials, Justin St. Pierre and Marc Joannette, for maintaining order in a game that could have degenerated into a cage match early and often. From the skirmish that earned Jeff Skinner and Mikael Samuelsson matching penalties for slashing in the first period, to Drayson Bowman's dangerous check of Mike Weaver along the boards in the second, to Bryan Allen's continual battles with Tomas Kopecky, and ending with what looked like two football teams meeting at the 50-yard line at the end of the game, there were plenty of opportunities for shenanigans. Fortunately, the officials kept the game under control and it never approached the ridiculous levels seen in the Rangers/Devils game earlier this week.
Number to Know
10 - Number of consecutive periods the Hurricanes have scored a goal, dating to the third period of last Thursday's game against the Blues. The Canes have outscored their opposition 14-7 in those ten periods.
Eric Staal - The captain continued his stellar play with another two-goal night against the Panthers, and was about half a second too late in hitting the empty net before the buzzer for the hat trick. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the past two games are only the second time in Staal's career that he has scored multiple goals in consecutive games. Staal is averaging more than a point per game in March (12 points in 11 GP), and yet again he led all Hurricanes with 23:20 in ice time on Wednesday.
Jeff Skinner - You've probably already read the breakdown of how Skinner's penalties have changed since returning from his concussion. True to form, Skinner took a game-high three penalties Wednesday night, and two of them put his team at 4-on-4. One of those situations became a 4-on-3 for 1:28 thanks to a Dmitry Kulikov high-sticking penalty, and the Canes certainly wouldn't have minded having Skinner available on what proved to be an unsuccessful power play. The following might be the most obvious sentence ever written on this site: for Skinner to help his team win, he needs to be on the ice, not in the penalty box.