It took the better part of four months, but the Carolina Hurricanes have finally found the form that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring.
The 'Canes won their third game in a row with a dominant 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday night. They've now beaten the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and the Islanders in a five-day span, outscoring their opponents 14-3. Carolina is still last in the East and 12 points out of a playoff berth, but is not about to concede anything yet.
"Our structure is as good as it has been all year in terms of how the lines are fitting," coach Paul Maurice said after his team improved to 8-5-0 in January. "It is easy to get loose at this time and guys can just play for their points, but I don't think we've done that because we've got the leadership taking care of that in the room, and our goaltender has been pretty darn good. That has a lot to do with everything."
Cam Ward was indeed "pretty darn good" -- he stopped 26 of 27 shots, allowing only a late goal to Matt Moulson that broke up his shutout bid. That was little consolation for the Islanders, who lost their third in a row and remained 13th in the East, though they're only two points behind sixth-place Atlanta.
When asked if Carolina was playing its best hockey of the season, Ward quickly answered by saying, "It's fair to say that. You can see the confidence in the players now. We're not second-guessing, and we're having some fun. It's good to see the guys clicking and playing well."
New captain Eric Staal opened the scoring at 9:19 of the first period, banging his own rebound past Rick DiPietro for a power-play goal. He's scored eight times in five games since getting the "C."
"I don't think it's a coincidence," Maurice said about the timing of Staal's scoring streak. "But I also think that he's finally starting to feel physically good. He's back to center ice. He couldn't play center ice for a while."
Matt Cullen made it 2-0 at 12:12 with a wrist shot past DiPietro after a turnover, and Stephane Yelle scored a shorthanded goal at 9:40 of the third period.
"You give a team, no matter where they are in the standings, the type of chances we gave them, you're not going to win games," Moulson said. "They're a team that's hot. We knew that and we came out pretty sluggish."
Kings 4, Blue Jackets 1 | HIGHLIGHTS | PHOTOS
Los Angeles continues to be at home on the road. Anze Kopitar scored his 100th and 101st career goals as the Kings won their fourth in a row overall and fifth-straight away from the Staples Center by beating the Blue Jackets.
The Kings improved to 17-10-1 on the road and are 3-0-0 on their current road trip.
Jonathan Quick made seven of his 29 saves in the first two minutes, keeping the Kings even until Matt Greene scored at 11:05.
"We seem to play really good on the road. I thought the first 10 minutes, we were just flat-footed and Quickie stood tall for us and made some crucial saves," Kopitar said.
Kopitar scored his 100th career goal at 15:46 of the second, wristing a shot from the high slot past Steve Mason to make it 2-0.
"It's pretty special," he said of the milestone. "You see the guys reaching 300, 400, 500, those big guys, and it's pretty nice. Now I've got it started, a little milestone, and I'm ready to score a couple more now too."
It didn't take him long. After Ryan Smyth made it 3-0 at 4:05 of the third period, Kopitar started on his next 100 goals by beating Mason during a power play at 9:26. Antoine Vermette broke up Quick's shutout with 8:22 remaining.
Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team remained 14th in the West and is eight points out of a playoff berth, said his team wasn't able to maintain its early dominance.
"The first 12 minutes was the best we've played in a long time," he said. "Everybody was going and we were doing the things we needed to do. We didn't stay with it.
"I'm surprised at the way we played for the last 40 minutes. I was surprised by the way we didn't respond. They didn't play very well at the start, but they scored on their second or third shot (on goal). I don't think it was L.A. They picked it up on the checking side, but we got discouraged and lost our intensity."
Coyotes 3, Flames 2 (SO) | HIGHLIGHTS | PHOTOS
Not much is going right for the Flames, who overcame a 2-0 deficit and dominated the third period and overtime, only to drop their ninth in a row when Robert Lang and Lauri Korpikoski scored for Phoenix in the shootout.
Keith Yandle and Shane Doan gave the Coyotes a 2-0 lead with second-period goals, but Mark Giordano got one back for the Flames with 57 seconds remaining in the period and rookie Mikael Backlund tied it 8:15 into the third, banking in a shot for his first NHL goal.
"It was kind of a funny game, kind of a game with lots of hiccups," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "Lots of penalties, not a lot of flow. I was disappointed the way we started the game. I didn't think we had the first period we would have liked.
"We had a team that played last night, and I would have liked to have seen us be sharper, just sharper in the plays we were making, a little more direct at the net. I thought we passed up a lot of shots."
Calgary controlled the play for the rest of regulation and the five-minute overtime but couldn't beat Ilya Bryzgalov, who finished with 24 saves. In the shootout, Lang scored on a backhander and Korpikoski ripped a wrist shot past Miikka Kiprusoff, while Bryzgalov stopped Olli Jokinen and Backlund.
"It was a big win," Bryzgalov said. "There's not many games left, every point is so important, every game counts, every play counts now, and if you want to be in the playoff race, you've got to win, continue to battle hard."
The point did move the Flames one point ahead of Detroit for the last playoff spot in the West. But they're still mired in their longest losing streak since dropping 11 in a row in 1985-86. Calgary has lost two shootouts in as many nights, dropping one in Dallas on Wednesday.
"We got down 2-0 and we battled back to tie it up and got some quality scoring chances in the third," coach Brent Sutter said. "We just couldn't get that third goal, and when it goes to the shootout anything can happen."
Phoenix won for the 31st time in 54 games, the fastest the Coyotes franchise has reached that many wins since the team entered the NHL as the Winnipeg Jets in 1979. The 'Yotes are also 20-8-2 at home.
The Coyotes lost their leading goal-scorer, Scottie Upshall, to an apparent right knee injury late in the game. Upshall has 18 goals, including eight in the last 15 games.
Blues 2, Oilers 1 | HIGHLIGHTS | PHOTOS
The Blues have trouble winning in St. Louis -- they have the worst home record in the NHL -- but they're dynamite on the road, and especially in Western Canada. Alex Steen scored at 2:09 on his team's only shot in the third period to give the Blues their fifth win in six games out West this season while extending the Oilers' losing streak to 12 games.
Steen raced down the right wing and ripped a short-side wrist shot past Jeff Deslauriers from the circle, breaking a 1-1 tie. The Oilers outshot the Blues 10-1 in the final period but couldn't get the tying goal past Chris Mason, who made 24 saves as St. Louis improved to 15-8-4 away from the Scottrade Center.
"You don't hate any of your wins, but we'll take this one and get out of town," said Blues interim coach Davis Payne, whose team lost 3-2 at Vancouver on Wednesday. "It wasn't perfect, but we found a way to get the go-ahead goal in the third period. We gave up a couple of chances, Mase made some big saves, and we were able to grind this one out to the very end."
The Oilers actually took the lead when Dustin Penner hammered home Robert Nilsson's pass at 7:44 of the second period. But the lead lasted just 17 seconds before ex-Oiler Eric Brewer's straightaway slap shot sailed through traffic and past Deslauriers.
Edmonton hasn't won since beating Toronto 3-1 at home on Dec. 30. They are last in the overall standings with 38 points.
"Nobody here wants to lose," Deslauriers said. "I don't care if it is two in a row, or three in a row, or four in a row, much less this."
Oilers coach Pat Quinn said the way the Blues won -- by scoring on their lone shot of the third period -- summed up his team's winless stretch.
"The team played hard tonight and did a lot of good things," he said. "We only give up that one shot and it happens to be a goal. It's those types of situations that have prolonged this. There isn't a soul in our room that doesn't hate this.
"You'd almost think the odds would eventually work in your favor."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report