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Hurricanes-Lightning Preview

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When the Carolina Hurricanes brought back Paul Maurice as their coach one month ago Saturday, they were hoping to increase the team's confidence.

Just 14 games into Maurice's second stint with the club, it seems to have worked.

The Hurricanes, who've gone 7-4-3 since Maurice replaced Peter Laviolette, will look to notch their first three-game winning streak since the coaching change on Saturday against the last-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

Carolina (19-15-5) had dropped four of five on Dec. 3, when general manager Jim Rutherford fired Laviolette, the coach that led the franchise to its first Stanley Cup title in 2006. But Rutherford said this season's team was "not playing with the kind of confidence it needs" at the time of the coaching change.

It appears to be doing so now, especially after the Hurricanes' 2-1 win over St. Louis on Friday. Cam Ward, the Conn Smythe award winner after the Stanley Cup run, stopped 30 shots and the defense held firm even after the Blues trimmed Carolina's lead to one with nine minutes to play.

"One of the things that I think our team has really improved on is, we're not panicking when things like that happen to us," Ward said. "Despite them having some opportunities, we didn't force anything. We didn't panic in any way or form."

Anton Babchuk's power-play goal stood up as the game-winner, while Tuomo Ruutu and Sergei Samsonov each had two assists for Carolina. Samsonov, a former 75-point scorer whose production has declined in recent seasons, has two goals and three assists in his last two games.

He scored twice in a 3-1 win over Atlanta on Wednesday, when Ward stopped 20 shots. Since returning from a groin injury last month, Ward is 6-2-1 with a 2.08 goals-against average.

"I'm just excited to come to the rink every day and play with these guys and try to contribute," Ward told the Hurricanes' official Web site. "Hopefully, we can get on a roll and pile up some wins."

Ward's strong play could create problems for the Lightning, whose 87 goals rank 29th in the NHL. Tampa Bay's 30 points are better than only the New York Islanders.

The Lightning (10-17-10) had been playing better of late, going 3-0-1 in their last four games in 2008. But they took a step backward on Thursday, losing 7-4 at Southeast Division-leading Washington.

Coach Rick Tocchet's club nearly erased an early three-goal deficit, but a pair of late goals sealed it for the Capitals, who did all their scoring at even strength.

"It's obviously disappointing because it's a division game," Tocchet said. "... I thought we were really going to be ready to play at the start of the game against this team, and we weren't."

While Lightning goalie Mike Smith gave up a career-high seven goals, Tampa Bay's offense continued to show signs of improvement, with Vincent Lecavalier scoring twice and Martin St. Louis adding three assists. The Lightning have scored four or more goals twice in the last three games after doing it just twice in their first 34 contests.

They've lost twice to the Hurricanes this season, but have earned a pair of points, falling in overtime at home on Oct. 11 and in a shootout in Raleigh on Nov. 16. Smith allowed six goals on 70 shots in those games, but he's still without a win in four career starts against Carolina.

Ward, meanwhile, has won four of his last five against the Lightning, with a 1.58 GAA over that span.

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