The Carolina Hurricanes will close out a home-and-home Thanksgiving sandwich with the New Jersey Devils on Friday night at PNC Arena in yet another important divisional match-up.
“It’s like any game in this 82-game season. Every game is so important,” said forward Tuomo Ruutu, who has scored a goal in two straight games. “When you look at the schedule, game after game, it’s tough opponent after tough opponent, divisional game after divisional game. It’s so important to grind it out every game. Every game should feel like the last game of the season.
“I’ve experienced it twice when we’ve lost the last game of the season and not made the playoffs, and I always try to think when we’re playing that 45th game or whatever, this might be the game. One play might be the difference.”
The Canes are riding a two-game winning streak, having topped the Devils 4-3 at Prudential Center on Wednesday. Spurred by a three-goal second period, the second in as many games, the Canes jumped out to a 4-1 lead and held on for a one-goal victory.
Team confidence, head coach Kirk Muller said, is probably the highest it has been since the start of the season.
“I think what we’ve been harping on is the base of our game without the puck. We have to play strong defensively, and bring that consistently every game,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to see more pucks go in the net, but I think that’s just the result of doing the right things. Over time, it pays off.”
In addition to Ruutu’s two-game goal streak, centerman Eric Staal has points in seven straight games (3g, 6a) and assists in five straight. On both of Ruutu’s goals, Staal has set the table beautifully with a tape-to-tape pass, one hitting Ruutu in stride as he slid through a seam in the defense and one a centering pass into the slot that Ruutu finished emphatically.
“I’m moving my feet more, and that’s really key for me. I can get my hits and, at the same time, get to the net for rebounds,” Ruutu said. “We’ve been better with the puck as a team, and for me, I’ve been better as an individual.”
Muller was complimentary of Staal, saying many on the team have raised their level of play, but the captain is leading the way.
“Eric’s really picked up his pace. His pace is quicker now. He’s going more direct. He’s faster, he’s hungrier and he’s got his confidence again,” Muller said. “When he’s going like that, now he looks like a power forward who’s tough to contain.”
With the win in New Jersey on Wednesday, the Canes vaulted past the Devils into fourth place in the Metropolitan Division. With 25 points (10-10-5), Carolina currently sits just a point back of second place, as Washington and New York each have 26 points.
A win tonight would mean an eight-point swing for the Canes in this home-and-home set against a divisional opponent.
“It’s going to be about consistency,” Muller said. “We were fortunate to win in there, but tonight is going to be a hard night, and we’ve got to be ready to compete and play hard with them.
“I thought we moved the puck well. We stretched them out. They’re a really good team that plays with five guys as a group. They can really isolate you in your zone and in the neutral zone,” Muller said of Wednesday’s game. “We knew that we had to really skate and put pucks in the right areas to spread them out and get scoring opportunities. I thought our puck placement was really good, and we were first on pucks which gave us an opportunity to play some time in the offensive zone.”
The Canes will try for their third win in a row without the services of Andrej Sekera (upper-body injury, day-to-day), a top-pairing defenseman. Ron Hainsey will play to the left of Justin Faulk, and Mike Komisarek will draw into the lineup beside Brett Bellemore.
“We have confidence in Mike; it’s just been a numbers game. He’s worked so hard every day, and he’s been such a great pro. I think a lot of guys are pulling for him to have a good game tonight. He’s done everything that’s been asked from him, and he’s been a great team guy,” Muller said. “I’m sure he’ll be ready and excited to play tonight.”
Cam Ward will make his fourth straight start in net. He’s stopped 89 of his last 96 shots faced, earning points in all three games.
“Cam has come back and played extremely well. If he’s giving us a chance to win like he has the last few games, then we’ll keep going with him,” Muller said.
Though it’s not official, Ward is riding a two-game “Oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-he-made-that-save” streak, after making a desperation stick save on Colin Greening on Sunday and stunning the New Jersey crowd on Wednesday with a phenomenal glove save on Adam Henrique.
“That’s what No. 1 goalies do. They make those saves. He’s making them, and that’s what we need from him,” Muller said. “It’s obviously a big lift for us because they’ve been such timely saves. That’s what he’s here for.”
It’s Black Friday, and the Canes will be wearing their black third uniform set tonight. They are 1-1 in the alternate sweaters this season.