RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller likes to say the second half of the season is when the big boys come out to play.
Games take on added significance. Play is more physical. More is at stake as teams battle for playoff position.
The Canes and St. Louis Blues engaged in one of those big-boy games Friday at PNC Arena, and the Canes came away with a 3-1 victory that ranks as one of their best this season.
We said we had to bring our A game tonight, Muller said. I thought our guys were focused and we put a real good 60 minutes together.
Nathan Gerbe had a first-period power-play goal and Jeff Skinner an even-strength score for the Canes early in the second. For the rest of the game, until a late empty-net score by Alexander Semin, it was a tense, tight-checking, give-no-quarter duel.
Goalie Anton Khudobin, playing in his 14th straight game for the Canes, had 10 saves in the final period and closed with 26. Khudobin had several high-quality stops and didnt allow many rebounds against a team that was second in the NHL in scoring.
The Blues only goal came on David Backes power-play score in the first, although they had some near-misses and hit posts a few times.
The Canes (25-20-9), who climbed to third place in the Metropolitan Division, wanted a 200-foot game to best use their speed. The Blues (36-12-5) wanted to keep the Canes hemmed in the Carolina zone and negate that speed.
We were skating well, Muller said. We talked about trying to play a high-tempo game and skate. It was important to put the puck in the right areas.
Canes defenseman Andrej Sekera, who had another outstanding game, put the puck in the right area for Gerbe. Sekeras cross-ice pass on the power play set up Gerbe for a one-timer that beat Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak.
Skinner also got the puck in the right area. After a faceoff win by Jordan Staal in the Blues zone, the winger was open between the circles and rifled a shot under Halaks glove for his 23rd goal of the season.
Semin suffered a concussion in the Nov. 16 game in St. Louis, taking a hit from Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Semin was called for boarding Friday on a second-period hit on Pietrangelo that had Canes fans angry.
The Canes killed off the penalty and appeared to play with added energy after it. So did Semin, who was active all over the ice.
Jordan Staal picked up a holding penalty in the final minute of the second. But the Canes killed off the final 68 seconds of that penalty to begin the third period, then a delay-of-game penalty against Semin for closing his hand on the puck.
With about six minutes left in regulation, Jordan Staal and Sekera skated back and forth behind the Blues net, taking turns in controlling the puck. The Blues chased after them but it was a futile pursuit.
They skated, they checked, they played hard, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Canes. We were light.
The Canes, after a 3-0 loss Tuesday at Montreal, were beginning a four-game homestand that ends with the break for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The victory gave them a 10-4 record in January.
As the games get down the stretch they definitely get tighter and bigger, Skinner said. You have to bear down.
The Canes did Friday. Against a big, strong team, they were anything but light.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip