Canes’ Footing Getting More Firm

BEHIND THE GLASS | In Friday’s Herald

It’s not much of a streak, but with wins in their last two games – and solid outings in three in a row, dating to a loss to Atlanta a week ago today – the Carolina Hurricanes seem to be finally gaining some firm purchase on the young NHL season.

If so, it’s been awhile coming.

The team’s record – 10-7-2 at this point, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference – belies the fact that Carolina has been plagued with the kind of inconsistency and stretches of less-than-mediocre play that characterized the last two years.

Even when winning games earlier this season, the Hurricanes did so in something of an ugly manner. They won by having to come from behind and lost by giving up goals in bunches. They got by for a time with defensive lapses, mental breakdowns, shaky goaltending and a roster smarting from a variety of injuries before losing three straight, and four of five, until Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The team’s not totally on the right track. Eric Staal is still slumping, with just a single goal (an empty-netter at that) in his last 12 games, and the Hurricanes remain without the services of injured defenseman Frantisek Kaberle and winger Justin Williams. But as a unit, the Hurricanes may be starting to gel. Head coach Peter Laviolette is doing less toying with his line combinations, chemistry seems to be working for the team instead of against it and, to everyone’s relief, goalie Cam Ward is starting to play like…well, Cam Ward.

It’s Ward who holds one key to the rest of the team’s confidence. He’s been in net for the last three games, including Sunday’s win and Tuesday’s battle against the Montreal Canadiens, and for the first time since late winter he’s put together impressive back-to-back-to-back performances. He stopped both shooters he faced in the shootout victory against Tampa – good news, because he’s been notoriously weak in shootouts – and was very strong against a talented Montreal lineup.

In these last three games, Ward’s goals-against average was a shade over 2.00, a full goal below his season’s average, and he stopped 76 of 82 shots, a .926 save percentage that’s also far better than his save percentage to date.

The wins evened the team’s record to 4-4 at home, and with home games tonight (Phoenix Coyotes, 7 p.m.) and Sunday (Nashville Predators, 3 p.m.) there’s a chance to gain ground on division-leading Washington.

Ward’s resurgence has been good to see, but the largest sigh of relief Tuesday came from winger Sergei Samsonov. You’ll remember that Samsonov didn’t score a goal in 23 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season and was subsequently placed on waivers. After the Canes picked him up, he notched 14 in 38 games. Tuesday’s goal against Montreal was his first in 19 games this season and seemed to give the entire team a lift.

Maybe Staal is next on the lift line…

Hurricanes notes:
Captain Rod Brind’Amour moved into sole possession of 50th place on the NHL’s all-time points list with his goal against Tampa Bay Nov. 16. It was Brind’Amour’s 1,127th career point, moving him past Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy and Hall-of-Famer to-be Joe Nieuwendyk. The goal also tied him with former Hurricane Jeff O’Neill for third place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list, behind only Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen… Winger Justin Williams, who had surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon two months ago, is back skating and may return to the lineup well before the 4-to-6 month period he was expected to miss… Carolina’s defensive corps scored all of 133 points (20 goals, 113 assists) in 82 games last season, an average of 1.62 points per game. So far this season, defensemen have racked up 45 points (8 goals, 37 assists) in 19 games – an average of 2.37 points per game, and increase of 46 percent.

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