RALEIGH -- Carolina coach Kirk Muller had mixed and matched forward lines throughout his first 16 games behind the bench, trying to shake the Hurricanes out of their tailspin.
In his 17th game, he found the winning combination: Jussi Jokinen, Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu.
Staal had a goal and two assists, while his linemates each added an assist as the Hurricanes held off the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 Friday night at the RBC Center.
Staal has three goals and eight points over his last four games, showing signs that he is breaking out of a season-long slump.
"Tonight our line was aggressive and physical," said the Hurricanes captain, who raised his point total to 28 through 42 games. "When you play with a guy like Ruutu, he's a big, physical fast winger, and he's in on the D and he opens up space. We controlled the puck well, and when we had chances in and around the net, we put pucks there and had opportunities."
The game was full of scoring chances for both team. Twice the Hurricanes jumped in front by a goal, only to have the Sabres tie the game. But the Hurricanes got the critical go-ahead tally midway through the third period when Chad LaRose carried the puck in on a 2-on-1 with Brandon Sutter. When Sabres defenseman Robyn Regehr took away the passing option, LaRose sent a wrister past Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller at 8:10.
"I looked (for a) pass the whole time to see if (Regehr) would give me a lane to shoot," said LaRose, who is second on the team with 11 goals. "Once I knew he was staying in the middle, I was shooting 100 percent from there on out."
Sutter added an empty-netter to cap a night of frustration for the Sabres, who generated 33 shots, many of them quality chances from in close on Carolina goaltender Cam Ward.
"I don't want to stand here and talk about Grade A scoring chances, because that was maybe our highest total chances for the whole year — and we only came away with two goals, " Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said.
The Sabres had a late opportunity to tie the game when Carolina's Justin Faulk took a cross-checking penalty with less than four minutes remaining. Still, the Sabres couldn't convert.
Starting the night just four points behind eighth-place Washington, Buffalo is looking to make a second-half charge. With defenseman Tyler Myers returning to the lineup after a 19-game absence with a broken wrist, the Sabres were hoping to build a little momentum. But with the loss to Carolina, Buffalo has gone 25 games without recording back-to-back wins.
"It's frustrating," Ruff said. "We work to find that slot area at least ten times a game. But you know what? They're only really good opportunities if you bury them. Not converting isn't any good."
Staal's 10th goal of the season at 1:11 of the third period put the Hurricanes ahead 2-1. Carolina's captain gathered a puck behind the net, brought it to his forehand and tucked it into the net. But Buffalo captain Jason Pominville tied the game 2-2 less than two minutes later. The Buffalo forward and Hurricanes defenseman Jamie McBain both swiped at the puck, with McBain appearing to knock it into his own net.
The Hurricanes have buckled under the weight of third-period comeback goals this season, but not this time. Muller had a good idea why the Hurricanes held up Friday night.
"Everyone was involved and felt good about their game," he said. "I don't think we had any passengers. We've been preaching the last couple games about our competitive level, winning one-on-one battles. I think that was the part of the game I liked the most with our team tonight.
The Hurricanes started the scoring early in the second period, wasting no time on their first power play of the game. Faulk skated the puck off the boards to the middle of the ice and ripped a shot past Miller at 2:39 for his third goal of the season -- just seven seconds after Mike Weber was sent off for high sticking Brett Sutter. Jussi Jokinen and Staal earned the assists.
The Sabres answered 21 seconds later when Vanek tapped his 19th of the season past Ward from the left post after Pominville and Jochen Hecht worked the puck into scoring position. It marked the 30th time that Vanek and Pominville have recorded points on the same goal this season, second only to Vancouver's Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who have combined on 36 goals.
If Myers' return to the lineup was the good news for Buffalo, it was quickly offset by another injury. Derek Roy left the games after three shifts and did not return. Ruff indicated Roy will be out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. If he ends up missing a game, he will be the 19th player to miss time with an injury.
For the Hurricanes (14-21-7), the win is a welcome one. Like Buffalo, they have struggled to get on a roll all season. But Muller's continued preaching about competitive level is slowly taking root. For this night, it was the enough for a hard-fought win.
"It seems like good defense is leading to good offense," LaRose said. "If you know your role and everybody plays their role, you win hockey games like this."