by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/RALEIGH - There's something fishy going on at the ol' RBC right now...like, alternate dimension fishy. Carolina won its third in a row and fourth of five, the latter two of which were on back-to-back nights with commute. In addition, Eric Staal and Ray Whitney stretched their points streaks to seven games apiece and Staal reached a nice personal and franchise milestone with his assist on the empty-netter. The 'Canes have tapped into some long-dormant potential and can't seem to stop scoring, early and often.
Now, I'm someone who doesn't mind admitting I'm wrong. It's a good skill, I think, especially when it's been known to happen. Chad LaRose is nowhere near the worst thing to happen to hockey since the "glowing puck" fiasco of the mid-90's. Getting those free agents from Boston didn't turn out to be quite the boon I thought it would be. And Staal seems quite taken with this whole captaincy thing, even though it initially appeared to be a no-win situation. The 'Canes don't seem to mind having him at the helm either. Staal scored the game's first goal off his own rebound, his eighth in five games since donning the 'C.'
And he's not the only one. From the bottom up, Carolina looks better. All of the sudden, when any hope of recovery has all but gone the way of the dodo and players are just about to start being pawned off for draft picks, someone flipped the "on" switch on the back of the 'Canes' helmets. Three straight explosive starts, 21 goals in five games, some pretty decent numbers for Ward...maybe Taylor Hall shouldn't be picking out red-and-black wallpaper just yet.
Ward says he sees the guys in front of him "making plays and not second guessing themselves."
Let's say it all together, folks: "Where has this team been all season?!" It's not a matter of players coming back or a trade shaking things up. The exact same squad that stunk to high hell a few weeks ago is now looking like its posturing for home ice advantage. Could Staal really have had that much of a difference? Naaaah. (Right?)
Ward certainly thinks so. "He's picked everyone else up. He's the leader of this team and he's playing at the top of his game right now," he said.
Matt Cullen surprised Rick DiPietro with a shot from an odd angle three minutes later. Instead of keeping the good times rolling, the Hurricanes treated Cam Ward to a few rounds of target practice with the Islanders, and not the fun kind. Ward zoomed back and forth across the crease and stonewalled the Islanders again and again, most impressively on a two-on-one during a fruitless Carolina power play.
The second period passed without much of, well, anything. Few shots, no goals, a couple of penalties. It definitely wasn't the most exciting period we've seen at the RBC Center this year, but at least they weren't giving up four goals in three minutes, as was commonplace just a few months ago.
Stephane Yelle scored his first since November when he skated the length of the ice with Patrick Dwyer while his team was shorthanded. Yelle unleashed a harmless looking wrister, which sneaked past DiPietro to make the score 3-0. Yelle did a little jig as he went down the fist-pound line at the bench. Yelle is often forgotten among the rest of Carolina's aging under performers, but he wants some score sheet love just like everyone else.
The teams took advantage of a TV time-out with five minutes left. They could hold on to that '0' for five minutes, right? Wrong. There seems to be some sort of cosmic force keeping Cam Ward from securing the team's first shutout of the season. Carolina has played well throughout the game and then coughed up a freebie in the last few minutes before (most recently, Boston on Sunday) but as previously mentioned, it's hard not to be giddy that that's the team's worst problem right now. This time, Ward was just a few measly minutes from keeping the Islanders off the board when a nasty defensive turnover left Matt Moulson alone in front of the net with the puck.
The Islanders pulled DiPietro for posterity and gave a cherry-picking Jussi Jokinen all the time and space in the world alone at the blue line. While the Islanders hustled back, he scored his 16th of the season, tying him for second on the team in goals. But the empty-netter was significant for one more reason. Though scoring in buckets hasn't been a problem for Staal, he hadn't had a single assist in five games. His assist on Jokinen's goal tied him for fifth place in franchise history in assists (218) and was his 400th NHL point.
"The points are nice and at the end, when it's all said and done, I'll sit back and enjoy that," Staal said to a chorus of choice words from nearby Manny Legace. "But every night it feels better when you have a 'W' in your column."
Since the 'Canes seem to be purging themselves of "haven't yets" and "never wills" this week, why not try and shed a few more against the formidable Chicago Blackhawks this Saturday? The Blackhawks are not in the same boat as the teams Carolina has been beating as they are resting comfortably in second place in the Western Conference and have won convincingly and with regularity this season. Carolina will try to win four in a row for the first time this season at home this weekend. Can they do it? Should Jim Rutherford see where this curious little science experiment takes his team before trading away his players? Let us know.