It was only 11 days ago that the Carolina Hurricanes’ lost their fifth straight game, at the Toronto Maple Leafs. On New Year’s Eve, two days later, they were down three goals to the Montreal Canadiens after two dismal periods.
It was the lowest point of their entire season. It really wasn’t that long ago. And yet it could hardly have seemed farther away Thursday night as the Hurricanes systematically picked apart those same Maple Leafs for their fifth straight win, 6-1.
How quickly they have turned things around, without Cam Ward and without Eric Staal. It started with the five goals in 21:49 to beat the Canadiens in overtime, and the Hurricanes haven’t looked back. It starts with Anton Khudobin, finally healthy in goal and on top of his game, and radiates out from there.
“Of course that third period against Montreal did give us a lot of momentum and confidence,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. “It’s great that our guys grabbed that and ran with that and used it to our advantage.”
While the NHL’s loser point for going to overtime has escalated the stakes even at this point in the season because it’s so hard to make up any ground in the standings, it isn’t often there is this much on the line at this point in the season. This was one of those rare occasions.
As January games go, this one was freighted with meaning. Not only are the slumping Leafs and streaking Hurricanes jockeying for wild-card position already, the Hurricanes were trying to win five in a row for the first time since 2010 riding the goal-scoring contributions of the NHL’s hottest player, Jeff Skinner.
Tim Gleason was back in town with Toronto only eight days after the Hurricanes traded him to the Leafs for John-Michael Liles, Khudobin was trying to lay permanent claim to the Carolina net and Alexander Semin had an Olympic snub to stew over (as did Eric Staal, who remains out injured).
Meanwhile, the entire team was happy to be back on the ice after a trip to Buffalo that turned into the road trip from hell -- “if hell froze over, I suppose,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said -- after a fearsome blizzard postponed Tuesday’s game against the Sabres.
It was an awful lot to cram into one weeknight game in January.
So what happened? A Gleason deflection ended up in the Toronto net for the game’s first goal, by Zach Boychuk. Skinner scored his 17th goal in as many games. Liles scored against his former team. Jordan Staal scored short-handed. Khudobin stopped 25 of 26 shots.
Talk about a plan coming together. It was as dominant a performance as the Hurricanes have fashioned on home ice this season, start to finish. And it only served to underline how far the Hurricanes have come in such a short period of time.
“When guys buy in and everybody’s pulling the same direction, it’s fun to play games because most of the time you’re winning,” said Liles, undefeated in a Hurricanes uniform. “It’s been nice. I haven’t been around that long, but it’s been a nice ride so far.”
The Montreal game was a microcosm of this entire stretch, from unwatchable to unbeatable in a matter of minutes. Even in the darkest moments, Muller preached “stay the course,” believing the Hurricanes were playing the way they needed to play to be successful, just not getting the results they needed.
They persevered. And now they’re reaping the rewards.