After struggling in their first few games under coach Paul Maurice, the Carolina Hurricanes appear to be finding their stride with him behind the bench.
The Hurricanes seek their sixth win in nine games Friday night when they host the slumping St. Louis Blues in the teams' first game of 2009.
Carolina (18-15-5) went 1-1-3 in its first five games after Maurice replaced the fired Peter Laviolette on Dec. 4, but has gone 5-3-0 since. The Hurricanes will be looking to win two in a row for the first time during Maurice's second stint as their coach, having defeated Southeast Division rival Atlanta 3-1 at home Wednesday.
Sergei Samsonov had two goals and an assist for Carolina, which picked up its fourth win in five games at the RBC Center by limiting the Thrashers to 21 shots.
"Obviously, that's an improvement - simplifying it in our own zone, making it easy on everybody else and communicating," said Cam Ward, who improved to 5-2-0 with a 2.27 goals-against average in his last seven starts.
Carolina's improved play is due in part to the resurgence of center Eric Staal, who leads the Hurricanes with 17 goals and is second on the team with 29 points. Staal has nine goals and five assists over his last 11 games after managing eight goals and seven assists in his first 27.
Second-place Carolina trails division-leading Washington by a double-digit point total, but Maurice is focusing on his club's progress.
"We're still on the bench kind of deciding where to turn the screws, because it's January, not September," Maurice said. "We're still trying to find our way with this team because of where we are in the season, but I think we're pretty pleased overall."
Carolina looks to continue that improvement by taking advantage of a favorable schedule in the early part of this month. Seven of its next nine games are against teams that have losing records.
The Hurricanes defeated a last-place club Wednesday, and will face another one Friday as they conclude a three-game homestand.
St. Louis (14-20-3) enters with a Western Conference-low 31 points, having lost nine of its last 11 contests.
Brad Boyes notched his team-leading 18th goal and David Backes scored his 11th to stake the Blues to a 2-1 lead Tuesday, but it wasn't enough in a 4-3 home defeat to New Jersey.
St. Louis outshot its opponent for the third consecutive game, but lost its second straight at home and third in four games there.
"We're at the bottom of the standings because we lose games like this," coach Andy Murray said. "We need to find a way to win or get a point out of it. To sit where we're sitting right now and not find a way continuously (to get results) doesn't sit well."
Murray's club has dropped three of the last four meetings with Carolina. Tuomo Ruutu scored and Ward made 19 saves in the Hurricanes' 1-0 victory at St. Louis on Oct. 30.
The Blues have lost the last two matchups in Raleigh, but the teams haven't played there since Jan. 15, 2006.