RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to feel it, sense it can happen, believe they will make it happen.
After a 6-2 romp Wednesday over the Montreal Canadiens, the Hurricanes have the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers dead in their sights in the NHL's Eastern Conference, even with the regular season quickly winding down. The top eight teams in the East will make the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the Canes don't intend to be left out.
Jeff Skinner is scoring goals - the rookie had another two Wednesday - and goaltender Cam Ward is preventing them. Tuomo Ruutu is hitting people, playing with emotion. Defenseman Jamie McBain is back from a shoulder injury and contributing, scoring twice against the Canadiens.
Eric Staal wants it. Erik Cole wants it. The Canes' defensemen are determined to do their part, and Joni Pitkanen chipped in a goal Wednesday. Young or old, every man in the Hurricanes' locker room wants it.
A night after a 3-2 shootout road win over the Washington Capitals, the Canes (37-30-10) completed their first back-to-back sweep since late December, ending a streak of six losses in the second games of back-to-backs. Their first victory this season over the Canadiens (41-30-7) gave the Hurricanes 84 points and left them three points out of playoff position behind the Sabres and Rangers in the East.
"It was an emotional game last night in Washington," said Ward, who had 38 saves for the second consecutive game. "To be able to respond and play with the up-tempo we did tonight really speaks volumes about the character in the room.
"We clearly know what's at stake here. Things are looking really good. We're playing with some confidence, and that's what you need to do at this time of the year. You can't play with fear or the what-ifs."
Skinner has proven he's pretty fearless.
He scored his 28th and 29th goals of the season in the first period to give the Canes a 2-0 lead and added an assist in his first plus-4 game.
Ruutu, who had two assists in the game, did the dirty work before both Skinner goals. He knocked defenseman Brent Sopel off the puck on the forecheck, allowing Skinner to swoop in and beat goalie Carey Price. On the second, Ruutu made a backhand pass to Skinner, who faked a forehand and went backhand on Price, who was relieved by Alex Auld after the second period.
Skinner had his chances to pick up his first hat trick but couldn't get that third goal. He did get some rough stuff from the Habs, with P.K. Subban slashing him across the left wrist in the third period and Sopel leveling him in the slot.
Canes coach Paul Maurice jokingly said Skinner, 18, reminded him of former Canes forward Martin Gelinas in that "he's usually at his best when he bleeds a little."
"He plays his best hockey in the big games," Maurice said of Skinner. "He scored his two, but he played very well in that third period. He's a very, very special player."
McBain, 23, recently missed six games with a shoulder injury, returning to the lineup Saturday against Tampa Bay. He had the first two-goal game of his career and his first goal was a big one, coming 47 seconds after Michael Cammalleri scored a power-play goal for the Habs early in the second period to make it 2-1.
"Any time you can respond right after a shift like that, after they scored, it brought the momentum back on our side," McBain said.
Subban later would add a power-play goal for the Canadiens. But McBain slammed in his second goal, and Cory Stillman added a power-play goal late in regulation to go with an assist.
The Hurricanes now have power-play goals in four straight games - a first this season. They scored six goals in a game for the first time since a 6-4 win over Toronto on Jan. 24.
"We're where we should be right now at this time of the year," Maurice said. "We're playing the kind of hockey we should be playing. We're in the fight."
The Hurricanes next go on the road to face the New York Islanders, a loose team that can score goals. On Sunday, the Sabres visit the RBC Center.
"It's not over," said Ruutu, who slammed the Habs' Hall Gill into a stanchion in the third period and shattered a glass section. "There are only a few games left, and teams are battling for playoff spots."
In the Canes' case, battling and believing.
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