Kirk Muller’s Carolina Hurricanes stand in the way of the Canadiens extending their winning streak to season’s best five games and despite their last place standing in the Eastern Conference, this young group is a club the Habs cannot take lightly.
They’ve gotten 16 of their last 24 points and that’s an impressive stretch for any club. “In the last 10-15 games, we’re beating some of the top teams in the league, we’re right there, our record, with everyone else and if we can do that going down the stretch, you never know what’s going to happen,” coach Muller told the media on Sunday (and you can hear his remarks, if you haven’t already, in Dave Stubbs HIO post from yesterday).
The Hurricanes have beaten the Bruins twice in the last month, as well as the Kings, Capitals, Lightning and Jets plus getting regulation ties before losing in OT against Avs, Ducks and Islanders and losing in the post-game skills competition to the Penguins.
Strangely (or perhaps not) they’ve done this since trading Alexei Ponikarovsky to the Devils three weeks ago for a minor leaguer and a draft pick. Ponikarovsky has played well for New Jersey but Carolina hasn’t suffered his absence.
“In our last 10 games on the road we’re almost .500, in our last 10 games at home we’re 7-2-1, so if you do that over the course of 82 games, that’s a pretty good formula to be fightin’ up to the top,” Muller added “Our last 10, 15 games we’re playing really good hockey and I wanna take that momentum right from here to the end of the year.”
They’re wrapping up a three-game road trip at the Bell Centre Monday after losing the first two in overtime in Anaheim and Colorado, the last with two seconds remaining.
“We’re definitely on the right track,” said captain Eric Staal, who had a goal and assist Friday in Denver. “We’re in every game. We’re playing hard. If we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’ll get rewarded.”
Part of the turnaround has been the improved play of Cam Ward in goal. After a leaky first half that saw his goals-against balloon to 3.24 and his save percentage drop to .896 at the end of December, he’s lifted both dramatically. He’s now at 2.79 and .912.
Staal, too, has been better than he was earlier, with 16 points in his last 15 games. His rugged winger Tuomo Ruuttu has been the subject of trade rumors that GM Jim Rutherford is hoping to squelch by negotiating a contract extension, so his value to the ‘Canes has been established. Jiri Tlusty, who’s playing on Staal’s other wing has eight points in his last 12 games, a good pace for him.
Other factors in the ‘Canes play of late include getting the exciting Jeff Skinner back a month ago. Last season’s Calder Trophy winner had missed 16 games due to concussion, although he’s not yet scoring at the pace he was prior to the injury (only five points in 10 games, compared to 24 points in his first 30 games).
Recognizing hs defence corps is not particularly physical, Rutherford surprised a lot of observers by getting a contract extension negotiated with tough Tim Gleason. Muller with work to get Gleason and Bryan Allen, the ‘Canes veteran shutdown pair on against the Cole-Desharnais-Pacioretty line.
The Hurricanes’ second pair of big Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk have been a pleasant surprise for Muller. Harrison had a shaky reputation for play in his own end, especially against speedy forwards, but he’s improved quite a bit this season by playing better positionally. It allowed Muller to put rookie Faulk with him. The 19-year-old is terrific with the puck and has been installed as the power play quarterback while injured Joni Pitkanen recovers from his concussion and knee surgery. “Kid’s good, he’s good,” Muller said of Falk.
Ex-Hab Jaro Spacek, like Muller in his first trip back to Montreal, is on the third pair with Jamie McBain, acting as something of a mentor to the former collegiate star. Spacek is also the subject of many trade rumors.
Carolina recalled Jerome Samson from their AHL team in Charlotte for this game. He’s a native of Greenfield Park and Muller said he’d be in the lineup to play in his hometown. He’s had a goal (his first in the NHL) in three games for the Hurricanes this season.
Here’s how Muller’s team should line up for the game:
Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu
Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose
Andreas Nodl, Brandon Sutter, Patrick Dwyer
Jerome Samson, Tim Brent, Anthony Stewart
Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen
Jay Harrison, Justin Faulk
Jaroslav Spacek, Jamie McBain