Canes find a formula

Carolina's top line is pumping out points

Staff writerDecember 30, 2009 

— Eric Staal calls it "instant chemistry" and no one plans to tamper with it.

Seeking more offense, something of a season-long quest, Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice shifted Staal from left wing to right wing in the third period Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers. Liking what he saw, he started Staal on the right wing Monday against the Washington Capitals with Matt Cullen again at center and Jussi Jokinen on the left wing.

The result since the switch: two goals and five assists for Staal. For the line: five goals and 11 assists.

"Those guys have been on fire for four periods of hockey," Maurice said Tuesday.

Maurice first used Staal, an NHL all-star at center, on the wing late in the Canes' 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 23. Staal then started at left wing, with Jokinen at center and Pat Dwyer on the right flank, against the Flyers.

But with the Canes trailing 3-0 in the third, Maurice sent out Cullen at center while moving Staal to right wing opposite Jokinen. The line clicked instantly, producing two goals by Jokinen and helping the Canes rally to tie the score and force overtime.

Carolina lost in a shootout, but Maurice had found something. Staal and Jokinen scored in the first period Monday in Washington as the Canes jumped to a 3-0 lead, and Staal would finish with two goals and three assists - his first five-point game of the season - in a 6-3 thumping of the Caps.

"It's a nice feeling to be on the ice with them," Staal said Tuesday. "When you get that confidence going, it's nice when you're jumping over the boards to know that you can make something happen right away."

Cullen smiled when asked if he ever imagined having Staal on his wing this season. Jokinen has played the wing at times. But Staal?

"We're just changing up some things, trying to spark some offense," Cullen said. "It's indicative of the fact we haven't been putting a lot of pucks in the net. Obviously, we're just trying to get something going."

For Staal, the timing couldn't be better. The selections for Team Canada will be made today and his late push - and on the wing - could enhance his chances of making the Olympic roster for the Vancouver Winter Games.

"I'm sure it didn't hurt my case," Staal said. "I'm sure their minds have been close to made up for a while. I just hope that I get a fair shake at it and an opportunity."

Maurice noted the move to the wing, while displaying Staal's versatility, likely would not be permanent. And, he said, it was made only for team purposes, not as any kind of last-second Olympic audition.

"It had absolutely nothing to do with it," Maurice said. "He was having problems with his faceoffs. He feels fine [physically] playing the games, but on faceoffs he aggravates himself when he does it.

"So we moved him to the wing. Eric scores a big bulk of his goals off the [right] side of the ice. ... He probably still feels more comfortable at center ice, but he understands where he's at right now."

The Canes had won just one road game and the Capitals had not lost a Southeast Division game until Monday. But talk about mood swings. The music was a little louder and the chatter livelier Tuesday in Canes' locker room at the RecZone.

The Hurricanes could have crumbled against the Caps, especially after defenseman Andrew Alberts tried to bat the puck down, only to knock it past goaltender Cam Ward and into his own net. It was the kind of bad break that has been so deflating this season.

But maybe something changed for the Canes in that third period against the Flyers - and not just the line change.

"You have to feel good, not necessarily happy but you have to have some confidence to play this game over an 82-game schedule," Maurice said. "You can't constantly be grinding or negative or dwelling on the bad things that happen."

The Canes may now have some confidence. And chemistry.

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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