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Khudobin, improved Hurricanes defeat Lightning

by Kurt Dusterberg /

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The January version of the Carolina Hurricanes is shaping up as the team that first-year coach Bill Peters envisioned when he took the job last June.

Carolina (17-25-5) jumped to an early two-goal lead, then held on to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2 for its third win in a row. The Hurricanes closed out 2014 with a 10-23-4 record, but they are 7-2-1 to start the new year.

With a healthy lineup, the Hurricanes have found some offensive rhythm.

"It's not as forced," Peters said. "The bench just runs a little smoother."

Eric Staal in particular has benefited from a healthy lineup. He has nine goals in his past 12 games, including the past 11 with brother Jordan Staal back from a broken leg sustained in the preseason.

Eric Staal got the Hurricanes on the board early Tuesday. On the first shift of the game, he took a pass from Jordan and worked through the right circle before lifting a backhand shot that deflected off Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman's stick and past goalie Ben Bishop.

"It's a different dynamic what we have going on now, where guys are situated, the roles guys are asked to play," Eric Staal said. "We competed with a lot of teams early in the year. We weren't getting smoked every game. We were playing properly. We just weren't winning."

Nathan Gerbe gave the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead with his fifth goal at 6:05. Brett Bellemore's shot from the right point came off the end boards to the left side of the net, where Gerbe finished into an open net.

That's when the Hurricanes grew a bit complacent, leaving Anton Khudobin to make a half-dozen superb saves. He stopped Tyler Johnson's shot from the slot with a left-pad save early in the period and later fended off Ondrej Palat's backhand bid with a glove save.

Tampa Bay (30-15-4) did cut the lead in half before the end of the first on Cedric Paquette's sixth of the season. He fought off Carolina forward Elias Lindholm in the right circle and scored when the rebound of his shot went in off Bellemore's skate at 14:05.

If not for Khudobin, who has won his past six starts, the Hurricanes might have relinquished the lead.

"He came up huge at big times," Peters said of Khudobin, who made 28 saves. "Once it was 2-0, I thought we were standing around watching. Maybe a little false sense of security when it was 2-0, but there shouldn't be."

Khudobin's turnaround has mirrored the Carolina's improved outcomes. After an 0-8-2 start, he has allowed nine goals in his six-game win streak.

"Every game I just prepare as I've prepared before," Khudobin said. "It's about how to stop the pucks, shot after shot after shot. I can't score, so the guys have to do their job and I have to do my job."

In the second period, the Hurricanes extended their lead to 3-1 on their first power-play opportunity of the night. Justin Faulk threaded a wrist shot from the center point past Bishop at 8:26 for his ninth goal.

Tampa Bay made it 3-2 with a shorthanded goal from Brian Boyle at 14:06. Victor Rask fanned on a pass inside the Lightning blue line, leaving Boyle to break out and slip a backhand between Khudobin's legs.

Carolina took its third two-goal lead at 7:53 of the third period when Faulk started a 2-on-1 with Jiri Tlusty, who beat Bishop to the short-side post. The goal was the 12th of the season for Tlusty, who had left the game in the second period after going head-first into the boards.

"I was just thinking, get it off my stick," Tlusty said. "I saw [Faulk] was sliding toward me and I saw a little opening under his blocker and I tried to put there. I fanned on it a little too, so I'm lucky it went in."

The assist gave Faulk a two-point night on the heels of his All-Star Game appearance. Asked if he might have been riding the wave of playing on a big stage, he was quick to point out where he is focused.

"No, it's done," said Faulk, who has 28 points in 47 games. "I'll try to do what I can here, play a complete game. I was not focused on the [All-Star Game] before, and I'm not after. I'm good to go."

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper wondered where the Lightning's focus was to start the game.

"Terrible," he said. "We gave up a goal in the first 20 seconds of the game. Unacceptable."

After falling behind 2-0, the Lightning seized momentum, but it was too big of a hole for the highest-scoring team in the NHL.

"It was a little frustrating we came out down because we carried the last half of the first period," Cooper said. "Their goalie, he made the saves. It's tough because we come on the road and give up four goals. That means you have to score five to win. It's tough to do in this league."

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