The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to play more and more like a team that wants to stay together all season.
The Canes matched their longest winning streak of the season Tuesday with a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at PNC Arena. Jeff Skinner scored the game-winning goal, banging in a pass from Elias Lindholm at three minutes, two seconds of overtime for a power-play score.
“It’s a good feeling when you’re winning, and hopefully we can keep that feeling going as long as we can,” Skinner said.
The Canes had a four-on-three power play after a lazy hooking penalty against the Pens’ Evgeni Malkin. Twenty-two seconds into the power play, Skinner ended it with his 16th of the season and fifth game-winner as Carolina won its third straight and lifted its record to 19-18-7.
Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg each had a goal and assist for the Canes, and Lindholm finished with a career-high three assists as Carolina’s top line threatened throughout the Metropolitan Division game.
Goalie Cam Ward, making his third straight start, picked up another win with 23 saves. Ward had his mask dislodged by a blistering shot from Phil Kessel in the first period but wasn’t injured and again was steady.
While the NHL standings are posted in the Canes’ locker room at PNC Arena, some players probably have avoided looking at the board. There has been speculation about what general manager Ron Francis may or may not do approaching the Feb. 29 NHL trade deadline, leaving the players to wonder who might not be in the room come the first day of March.
But the Canes are making a move up, going 11-5-3 since a 5-1 home-ice loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 3 that many on the team call a turning point. Carolina has found some consistency with its lines while the Canes are committed to playing three rookie defenseman – Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – and Ward and Eddie Lack have been solid enough in net.
After Tuesday’s NHL games, the Canes were two points out of a wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 45 points.
“We’re in the hunt, for sure,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “We’re right in the thick of things, and we’re playing better. It’s a good group of people in that room and they want to make a push here. We’ve got roughly six weeks, maybe five weeks until the end of February and we have to prove we’re in the hunt and legitimately there.”
The Canes beat the Pens 2-1 on Dec. 19 in Pittsburgh, but the Pens are healthy again. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is back from a concussion. Defenseman Kris Letang, who had a goal Tuesday, has returned from an injury.
Sidney Crosby, after a slow start to the season, is back to playing like Crosby. Left off the recently announced Metro Division All-Star roster, Crosby had two assists Tuesday and has 14 points in his last 11 games.
After a scoreless first – the Canes killing off two penalties – Eric Staal and Versteeg scored in the second for a 2-0 lead. Staal’s was a tap-in and Versteeg’s off a fortunate bounce as his shot attempt was wide, the puck ricocheting off the end boards and high in the air, then dropping off Fleury’s back.
The Pens tied the score as Letang drilled a shot from the point in the second and Chris Kunitz scored off a sharp pass from Crosby in the third.
But the Canes, overtime winners Saturday against Columbus, won again. The Canes had worked on the 4-on-3 power play in Tuesday’s morning skate and the preparation paid off.
The Pens had not allowed a power-play goal since the Dec. 19 game, when the Canes scored twice, and had killed off 27 straight penalties before the overtime Tuesday. But the Canes moved the puck smartly, Victor Rask to Justin Faulk at the top, then Faulk to Lindholm low while Skinner came in on the backside for the winner.
“Early in the season we were competitive, in every game, not getting a lot of bounces,” Eric Staal said. “We weren’t getting rewarded with points and the wins. Over the last stretch everyone knows what’s expected of them and we’re delivering with the points and in the win column.”