The first few months of the season the Carolina Hurricanes were hovering near the top of the NHL power-play stats, scoring at more than a 20 percent clip.
The gaudy play with the man advantage was spread evenly around the locker room, but it was hard to overlook the return of Matt Cullen to the point after spending a season with the New York Rangers.
Hard to overlook until Cullen went down in late December after an open-ice hit against his former team. Cullen’s absence from the lineup resulted in fewer power-play goals and a record that dipped to .500.
While the Canes were locked in a tight battle for the Southeast Division lead and in power-play crisis, they waited patiently for the return of Cullen, who tried to get back on the ice several times only to be sidelined by blurred vision and repeated headaches.
The center has returned recently and so has the Carolina power play, which scored four times in a 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday. Cullen had two of those goals and an assist on another as the Canes not only peppered Olaf Kolzig with shot-after-shot, but logged tons of zone time in the Washington end during their man advantages.
“Good looks, maybe,” Cullen joked when asked what he adds to the Carolina power play. “I enjoy playing the point. We have some good guys who can move the puck and I’m just allowed to find holes and shoot pucks whenever I can.”
“We missed him last year,” coach Peter Laviolette added about Cullen, who was a cog on the power play during the 2006 Cup run. Without Cullen last year, the Canes dipped to 25th in the NHL with the man advantage.
“He’s such a great puck handler and he makes things happen,” Bret Hedican said of Cullen. “He’s a guy we desperately missed when he was out. When he comes back into the lineup he just makes the simple plays and all the right plays. He’s fun to watch.”
The Canes are also 5-1-1 since acquiring defenseman Joe Corvo from Ottawa. Corvo is a right hand shot and plays along the blue line with Cullen, a left hand shot, on the first unit of the power play. Corvo also had three power-play points the other night against the Caps and has five points in six games since the trade.
“We’ve got some skill back there now that are moving the puck,” Eric Staal said. “Me and Cole are now roaming around at the top of the crease setting screens and looking for rebounds.
“Trust me, they both have helped a lot. Matt’s offensive instincts and his ability just to see the ice, along with Joe, makes a big difference. Matt just can find those areas where the puck is going to be.”
The Canes have concentrated on throwing more rubber at the net on the power play. The club has three straight 40-shot games for the first since 1987. Of the 42 shots taken against the Caps, 18 came on six power plays.
“We’ve talked a lot about creating traffic and getting in front of the net, especially this time of the year when you’re playing playoff-style hockey you’re not going to get pretty plays,” Cullen said. “You’ve got to get traffic and bang away.”
Corvo’s goal came with left in the third as he raced in from the point to bang home a loose rebound.
“There are not a lot of restrictions here,” Corvo said. “I’ve got the green light to jump into plays and it’s fun hockey.”
With Cullen back and the trade for Corvo secured by Jim Rutherford, Laviolette believes he’s got the proper chemistry he’s looking for on the first unit of the power play down the stretch.
“Having Joe Corvo back there is just a real pickup because he’s a right shot who moves with that unit,” the coach said. “It’s not just about his shot -- that’s important -- but it’s the way he moves and brings it up the ice and the way they all slide and move together out there. It is just creating openings, seams and opportunities. We’ve been on the attack the last three or four games. I really liked the way we’re moving it around. It is another step in the right direction.”