After having to go the last two weeks with five players out of the lineup, the Hurricanes got four of these players back tonight and put together their best performance of the season. Everything just seemed to come together tonight. The first line was firing on all cylinders, the penalty kill was a perfect five for five and Cam Ward came up big when he needed to, all en route to a 4-1 win over a very good Pittsburgh Penguins team. It's amazing what having a healthy roster can do, because this looked more like the team we have grown used to seeing before the wave of injuries happened.
Getting Skinner back definitely helped, as he scored his eighth goal of the season tonight, but what really sparked Carolina tonight was how well the first line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin played. The trio were back to their usual selves after a few off games, combining for three goals and completely dominating the Penguins territorially. The latter point is huge because Muller elected to match them up against Sidney Crosby's line and whenever those two were matched up against each other, the Pens were spending most of the time in their own zone. Being able to have that advantage is huge and it was a key reason why the Canes won this game. Them adding three goals was just icing on the cake.
What Carolina needed more than anything tonight was a confidence booster because it was at an all-time low after that horrible performance against Washington. Getting a few key players back in the lineup along with a few good bounces tonight changed everything and now things are looking up heading into the back-to-back series against the Florida Panthers. Let's just hope that this roster brings this type of performance this weekend.
Corey's Ten Thoughts
– This wasn't a dominant performance by the Canes, as they were outshot at even strength thanks to Pittsburgh playing down three goals for the entire third period, but they were more than good enough. Carolina was controlling the pace of play for most of the game, not getting hemmed into their own zone for long periods of time and had Ward bail them out when they needed him to. After getting outplayed for most of their last five games, it was good to see them take more control of things tonight. Getting Gleason and Skinner back obviously helped that.
– What more can be said about the top line's performance? Tonight was the best they have looked in awhile and one of the main reasons for it was the play of Eric Staal. He was doing the hard work down low to get to loose pucks and win battles along the boards, which resulted in this line tiring out Pittsburgh's defenders and creating a lot of offense. Staal played a critical role in all three goals. Crashing the net to deflect in a shot from Alexander Semin on the first one and doing the bullwork below the goal line on both of Jiri Tlusty's goals. That was something this team had been missing in the last couple of games.
– Jiri Tlusty was back home in his normal spot on the first line after the Chad LaRose experiment failed miserably last game and he will probably stay there for the foreseeable future after scoring two goals, giving him nine on the season. Tlusty has been very good this season but both of his goals tonight were the result of the hard work of his linemates. I mentioned Eric Staal's contributions earlier, as Tlusty's first goal was the result of a wrap-around chance by Staal being stopped but Alex Semin played a critical role in the second. After Staal won a puck battle against Robert Bortuzzo, Semin went around the net, spotted Tlusty wide open in the slot and made a perfect pass to him to give the Canes a 4-1 lead. Semin was signed to be the goal-scorer on the first line but so far, it's been Tlusty doing most of the goal-scoring and Sasha has been the one setting him up. Not how thing were planned but the Hurricanes will take it.
– LaRose was given a shot in the top-six tonight on Jordan Staal's line and it all ended after Patrick Dwyer was caught on this unit on a change and it resulted in Jeff Skinner scoring a goal. Lots of people are going to point to that as evidence for Dwyer to stay in the top-six and while I do I agree with that, this was the result of some horrible defensive zone coverage by the Penguins. Dwyer tried to send a pass to Joe Corvo, who was making his way to the front of the net, but it ended up missing him. Dwyer didn't give up on the play, though as he hunted the puck down and found Jeff Skinner in front of the net and he scored one of the easiest goals of his career. This was great awareness by Dwyer to not give up on the play but how Skinner managed to slip in untouched like that is beyond me. Either way, let's hope we see #39 on Jordan's wing next game.
– Justin Faulk & Jay Harrison had the tough task tonight of being matched up against Sidney Crosby and they were fantastic for most of the game. Aside from Chris Kunitz' goal in the first period, Crosby's line was held in check or most of the game and a lot of credit goes to the play of the first line along with Faulk & Harrison's defensive play. Faulk was shadowing Crosby whenever he was on the ice and did not give him much time or space to work with. They eased up a bit in the third period due to the score but I thought Faulk & Harrison definitely won this battle.
– The team's best defense pairing tonight according to shot supression was Gleason/Corvo, who I didn't notice for most of the game but that's probably a good thing given their role. Gleason actually got softer assignments than he is used to, as he started two extra shifts in the offensive zone and wasn't matched up against the Crosby line. This is unusual but I guess the coaching staff is trying to ease him back up to speed before throwing him to the wolves again. Still, he did a much better job than some of his replacements.
– Next to the first line, the penalty kill was the biggest reason why the Hurricanes won tonight. Carolina got into some penalty trouble tonight (some of it their own fault and others on the refs), but they killed off all five Pittsburgh powerplays and really didn't allow the Pens to do much of anything with the man advantage. They kept up their aggressive style of penalty killing, challenged the Penguins when they tried to enter the zone and didn't allow many of their shots to get to Cam Ward. The play of Gleason, Wallace and Faulk was on full display here, as they were all very impressive. Don't look now, but the Canes have allowed only one powerplay goal in the last five games.
– If there was one negative tonight, it was the powerplay which failed to score on all five of their opportunities and they didn't exactly look great on any of them. I thought getting Skinner back and having Brent manning the point would help things a little but no dice. It was good that the PK was on the top of their game tonight and that special teams didn't make or break the game.
– The Canes top-four was in good shape tonight but the third pairing of Bobby Sanguinetti and Jamie McBain had a lot of trouble containing the Pens tonight. The Canes were outshot 7-24 when Sanguinetti was on the ice and 8-23 when McBain was, which is pretty brutal even if they were kept on the third pairing. It isn't as bad because they aren't facing the toughest competition (turnover vs. Crosby's line isn't the same as a turnover vs. Vitale), but it's still a brutal showing. The duo had a noticable blunder in the second period when they were caught on the same side of the ice and it resulted in a breakaway chance for Matt Cooke. Thankfully, Ward said no.
– Canes were outshot at even strength, but they still gave up only 23 shots on goal which is very good for a team that's struggled defensively this season.. The fact that it came against one of the best offensive teams in the league is also nice. I think this is where getting Gleason back helped the most.
It's hard to find much to dislike about the way the Hurricanes played tonight and they should be feeling good about themselves heading into the weekend series against Florida. Those aren't must win games by any stretch but the Canes seriously need to turn around their divisional play and that should give them a chance to do so since they are coming in on a high note with the roster healthy.