It was a puck battle, pure and simple, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner versus Montreal’s Jeff Petry, a winner and a loser.
Skinner, not to be denied, hipped and shouldered Petry to the ice, corralling the puck and scoring an empty-net goal. It sealed the Hurricanes’ 4-1 road victory Thursday over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, and it epitomized the Canes’ play the past nine games,
The playoff odds stacked against them, they’re not going down easily, accepting their fate, looking to next season. They’re determined to play this thing out.
“There’s lots to play for,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “We still believe, and we’re just going to go about our business.”
A week on the road began with a tough-to-take overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, when the Canes gave up the lead late in regulation. They responded with a 4-3 win over the Florida Panthers, then beat the Canadiens after falling behind in the first period.
Next stop: New Jersey. The Canes, 6-0-3 in their past nine games, face the Devils on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
After Thursday’s games, the Canes (32-27-13) were five points behind the Boston Bruins, who hold the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. The Canes, with 10 games remaining, have two games-in-hand on the Bruins but also trail the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning in the standings.
Why the recent surge?
“The guys are real smart,” Peters said. “They know what’s on the line, and they know it’s very important for them moving forward. If you can’t play at this time of the year, you probably don’t fit into our organization moving forward. That’s really what it amounts to.
“Teams are desperate for points. If you can play at this time of year, you answer a lot of questions.”
A part of it is professionalism – the players are being paid to perform. Part of it is competitive pride. And as Peters said, a part of it is players looking to solidify their position on the team next season.
“Everyone is in a different situation,” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “You have players playing for contracts and then guys who aren’t, and while you never want to say the word ‘secure,’ they also have something to prove. You never want to be surpassed in this league or have someone come in and take your spot.”
As Skinner put it, “You’re in the NHL, the best league in the world. You don’t take that for granted. Everyone’s being evaluated, everyone has to prove themselves when you play in the NHL.”
Forward Phil Di Giuseppe is giving the Canes some bruising, effective play. So are forwards Patrick Brown and Brock McGinn, and defenseman Klas Dahlbeck.
“This is the most important time of the season, when teams are playing very hard, physical, dialed in, not giving up much for free,” Peters said.
Everyone did their part Thursday. Goaltender Eddie Lack, given the start, won for a third straight time and had 21 saves. Lee Stempniak scored twice, and Elias Lindholm extended his point streak to nine games with a power-play goal.
Skinner’s goal was his 29th of the season, giving him eight in the past seven games, and he added an assist. His line, with Stempniak and Derek Ryan, was the most productive and Ryan also had one of the biggest saves of the game, throwing himself in front of a shot with Lack out of position.
After New Jersey, the Canes play six of the last nine games at home, with four straight next week at PNC Arena. The remaining road games are in Pittsburgh, Minnesota and then Philadelphia on April 9 in the last regular-season game.
CAROLINA HURRICANES AT NEW JERSEY DEVILS
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.