RALEIGH — If the Carolina Hurricanes do reach the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, and there's still much work to be done, they may think back to Tuesday night and a cramped visitors locker room at Washington's Verizon Center.
During the second intermission against the Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes' players were mad, distracted. The Caps had grabbed a 2-1 lead with two goals late in the second period, but that was only a part of it.
Captain Eric Staal had been high-sticked and cut, with no penalty called. The Caps' Alex Ovechkin had made a run at the Canes' Tuomo Ruutu, with no penalty called. Tempers were flaring. The players were incensed at the referees - Staal had left the ice bleeding and screaming at referee Kevin Pollock.
That the Canes would regroup, refocus and rally to win says a lot about what happened in that locker room, of what was said by coach Paul Maurice, of how the players responded to what was said. Following a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, the Hurricanes may have been reeling - and their playoff chances all but vanished - with another defeat.
Instead, the Canes tied the score 2-2 in the third on Jeff Skinner's goal and beat the Caps 3-2 in a shootout. On Wednesday, they ripped the Montreal Canadiens 6-2 to remain three points out of playoff position in the NHL's Eastern Conference with five games left in the regular season.
"It's not going to be easy," goaltender Cam Ward said. "It's going to be a difficult road. As long as we keep on winning, we set ourselves up and have a good chance of making it."
Coaching oratory, as Maurice would admit, isn't always effective and can be overrated. But what he said Tuesday during the second intermission struck home.
"Coach came in and we were a little bit rattled," forward Jussi Jokinen said. "He just said take a deep breath and be ready to play 20 minutes, and I think that's what we did.
"We decided to leave the referees alone and just concentrate on playing our game, and that's what we were able to do. We found a way to get that second goal, and we were a better team in the third."
Skinner got the puck past goalie Semyon Varlamov for a 2-2 tie and again in the shootout. The rookie, as much as anyone, appeared to heed Maurice's words.
"You can get in the big games and you start squeezing the stick and getting all uptight, and that's not the way we want to play," Skinner said. "We did a good job of coming out and just working hard."
The Hurricanes (37-30-10) did it again Wednesday against the Habs at the RBC Center as Skinner scored twice in the first period, Ward had another strong game in goal, and the Canes had their biggest offensive output in two months.
Maurice rarely lets on as to what is said to the team behind closed doors but was matter-of-fact in discussing that second intermission against the Caps.
"We had to keep our composure," he said. "There's so much emotion for our hockey team. Staal gets split open, and the explanation is it's our stick. Unless he did it to himself ...
"We just couldn't lose sight of the fact that the game was so much more important to us than what was going on in that second period. We had to refocus and get back to just playing."
Winning is everything
With back-to-back wins and victories in five of the past six games, the Canes are playing well. Ward is sharp. Ruutu's line, with Skinner and Jokinen, is smoking hot. The power play, after a long non-scoring hiatus, has generated goals the past four games.
The Canes have allowed 40 shots each of the past two games - a lot of rubber for Ward to face. But Ward, who leads the NHL with 2,044 saves, also has gotten help in front of him when needed.
The Canes are ninth in the NHL's East with 84 points. Both the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers, who lost to the New York Islanders 6-2 on Thursday, have 87 points.
Sabres goalie Ryan Miller missed Wednesday's game against the Rangers with an upper-body injury and is being listed as "day-to-day." But backup Jhonas Enroth, 22, stepped in and shut out the Rangers 1-0 to ease some of the tension in Buffalo.
Under the NHL's new tie-breaking system, if teams are tied in points at the end of the season, shootout wins are subtracted and the adjusted win totals are used to determine the standings. The Rangers have eight shootout wins and the Sabres and Canes five apiece.
"I think it's a good rule," forward Cory Stillman said. "But I don't even look at that right now. I just look at the point totals."
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