Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward, widely recognized as of the best in the business, does not often yield three goals in a game – and especially not lately, with Carolina riding a four-game winning streak entering last night’s game against the Blue Jackets.
But R.J. Umberger and his teammates kept pouring it on, using a lightning-fast transition game and the silky passing of Derick Brassard to record his third career hat trick, and first since Nov. 30, 2009. Columbus’ resounding 5-1 win over a Hurricanes club clinging to playoff hopes was as artful as it was exciting, and a shake-up in line combinations by interim head coach Todd Richards sparked the offensive avalanche.
Umberger said his first goal of the evening was the catalyst, igniting a power-play unit that had struggled over the past couple of weeks and giving a boost of confidence they had desperately been seeking with the man advantage.
“We’ve been doing a lot of good things (on the power play) but not converting,” Umberger said. “The whole team felt good when one of those went in. After that, it seemed like Brass was finding me open a lot. They were a little sloppy with some turnovers and we got some odd-man rushes.”
But that’s not to overlook the other end of the special-teams spectrum. Early in the third period, trailing by a pair of goals, the Hurricanes got a 95-second two-man advantage but came up empty.
“The key to the game was our penalty kill,” Umberger said. “We were very aggressive up the ice and not giving them time in our zone. Stopping that 5-on-3 and not giving them momentum…that was the difference.”
Umberger snapped a seven-game goalless drought with a hat trick – not a bad way to bust a slump. Each of his three tallies had something different: the first was a 50-foot knuckle-puck that Ward had trouble tracking, and appeared to change direction on its own before reaching the net.
But the key to success was his center in this game. Brassard set a career-high with three assists in the victory, including a creative cross-ice pass late in the second period that Umberger slammed into the top corner for a 2-0 Blue Jackets lead.
“He was confident with the puck and he wanted it everywhere on the ice,” Umberger said. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen that can pull up and find guys trailing and cross-ice. He was really good tonight, and I was just the recipient of some good passes.”
At the end of Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Richards opted to mix up the top six forwards and move Cam Atkinson alongside Umberger and Brassard. Rick Nash, who was part of a struggling top line, joined Vinny Prospal and Mark Letestu in an effort to balance the offense. It was hard to argue with the results, especially given the frustration that came with the lack of production.
“You can say a lot of things, but we’ve taken a lot over the past six games for not scoring any goals,” Umberger said. “Honestly, I felt like one of these nights it was coming because we’ve had a lot of chances.
“I know I’ve had chance after chance and so has Rick. We just weren’t scoring goals, and tonight it seemed like everything lined up right. Their line got that first goal and then it was like everything started to happen."