In the penultimate home game of the season, the Carolina Hurricanes are aiming for a clean sweep of their future Atlantic Division rival New York Islanders.
In the teams’ previous two meetings, which took place over the span of 13 days, the Canes mounted come-from-behind victories to win 6-4 and 4-2, respectively.
The Canes were swept by the Islanders in the season series last year, the first season series loss for the team against New York since 2007-08. So what was so different this year? Head coach Kirk Muller said his team is dictating play.
“We’ve been able to recognize it and play a more disciplined, tighter game against them, and not get a pond-hockey type game of up-and-down and free-wheeling [play],” he said.
A special teams laden first meeting on February 11 began as that sort of that up-and-down type game that Muller mentioned, as the teams alternated scoring the first five goals of the game. With Carolina trailing 3-2 heading into the final period, the first line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin took over the game, scoring thrice in the first 10 minutes of the period to propel the team to victory.
In total, that trio of players registered nine points (4g, 5a) in the third period alone.
“It certainly gives you an opportunity to win every night when they play that well, produce like that and come out that way,” Muller said. “And they’ve been doing it all year. They’ve been pretty consistent. They’ve really been setting the course in a lot of games this year.”
In the second meeting on February 24, the Hurricanes fell in an early 2-0 hole. But, led by the first line, the team scored four unanswered goals, beginning with Staal’s power-play tally at 18:28 of the middle frame. Bobby Sanguinetti’s first-career goal was ultimately the game-winner, and Semin sealed the victory with an empty-net goal late in the third.
Through the two games against the Islanders this season, the first line trio has posted 14 points (6g, 8a) and is a combined plus-11.
In a bounce-back game against Tampa Bay on Sunday, the first line potted three first-period goals en route to a 3-2 road victory. The threesome totaled seven points (3g, 4a) and was a combined plus-9 in the game.
Through 45 games this season, Staal, Tlusty and Semin have earned 126 points (51g, 75a). Staal ranks first on the team in points (49), Staal and Semin rank tied for first in assists (31) and Tlusty ranks first in goals with a career-high 21.
“I believe in where we’re headed and the people we have,” Staal said.
“I’ve played with Staalsy for almost two years now,” Tlusty said. “I know what he’s going to do with the puck and where he’s going to be. When you play together for quite a bit, it helps you out there.”
With this game void of playoff implications for the Hurricanes, the team is relegated to the role of spoiler. The Islanders are looking to qualify for their first playoff berth since 2007. Coming into tonight, New York is 11-1-2 over its past 14 games, sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with just a point advantage over Ottawa and the New York Rangers.
Though this final week of the 2012-13 season is unlikely to have any direct impact on the 2013-14 season, Staal said the team wants to maintain and improve upon its good habits.
“There’s a culture you want to build and an attitude you want to have, and we’ve had that since Kirk has come in,” he said. “We’ve had the effort, the work ethic and the compete. Those things have been there.”
The Hurricanes will ice the same lineup as in Tampa Bay on Sunday: Dan Ellis will get his second straight start in net, and Kevin Westgarth will be the healthy extra, as the Canes will dress seven defensemen.