RALEIGH — When the Carolina Hurricanes decided on Kirk Muller as their new head coach, one of the gold stars on his resume was his work with the Montreal Canadiens' power play the past few seasons. By digging into his old Habs playbook, he's starting to have the same impact here.
Cam Ward stole the headlines with his late save on Keith Ballard, but the power play got the big goal when the Hurricanes needed it, which is all you can ever ask - Jaroslav Spacek netting the game-winner in the third period of Thursday's 4-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Muller's first at the RBC Center.
It's the fourth straight game where the Hurricanes have scored a power play goal, and after converting at a dismal 12.2 percent clip under Paul Maurice, they're an efficient 24.0 percent over those past four games.
"It's just executing, opening up the penalty-killers, using all the space and running through the options," Muller said. "We're getting there. We're not quite there yet but we're pretty happy with our puck movement and our decisions on when to shoot and when to make plays."
The way Muller has his first unit set up is deceptively simple. Staal is the quarterback, on the right half-boards, the spot where the faceoff circle meets the boards, with Tuomo Ruutu on the goal line.
Tim Brent has averaged only 36 seconds per game of power-play time in his career, almost all of that on the point last season in Toronto.
But he's a right-handed shot on a team full of lefties, which is how a player signed to be a fourth-line center ends up on the first unit.
He sets up between the tops of the circles, in position to shoot or exchange passes with Staal and Ruutu, but more than that, he forces a defenseman to come out or a forward to drop down to defend him, opening space elsewhere.
On the blue line, Spacek is the distributor and Justin Faulk is the trigger man. It's all designed give Staal as many options as possible from the half-boards and use Faulk's mobility to find open lanes and get pucks to the net.
"We got to go one shooter, try to get it to Faulk and go over there," said Spacek, who played for Muller in Montreal last season. "It's really important to bring the puck to the middle. That's basically my job. (Staal) gets open, and he's the quarterback over there. We can set up different plays from that, go for the shot or the low play, whatever they give us."
Spacek noted the similarities to what Muller did in Montreal last season - with P.K. Subban in the Faulk role, Tomas Plekanec in the Staal role and the right-shooting Brian Gionta in the Brent role - to jump-start Subban and the Canadiens' power play. Montreal's efficiency jumped more than 4 percent and Subban scored seven of his 11 power-play goals in the final 35 regular-season and playoff games.
"He actually mentioned something like that about what he did with Subban," Faulk said. "I haven't seen any video of him yet. Maybe at a later date, when he's got more time on his hands."
In Toronto on Tuesday, Alexei Ponikarovsky tapped in a cross-crease pass from Staal, having created a two-on-one down low. Thursday's goal came with Cam Ward on the bench for a delayed penalty, after enough shots and passes to break down the Vancouver defense, but there were plenty of chances on Carolina's other power plays, even if there weren't any goals.
For a work in progress, the Carolina power play is starting to show some real progress. Thursday, it might have been the difference between victory and defeat.