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Tlusty stars for Hurricanes in win over Penguins

by Kurt Dusterberg

RALEIGH, N.C. -- For some players, the feel of NHL hockey comes through a steady build. For others, excelling at the game is a lengthy process.

Count Carolina forward Jiri Tlusty as a member of the second group.

The 24-year-old is already six seasons into his NHL career, a reflection of his potential more than his previous offensive contribution. But that is changing. Tlusty delivered two goals and an assist in the Hurricanes' 4-1 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

"My break-in to the NHL [in Toronto] was kind of harder than I thought it was going to be," Tlusty said. "I had a kind of easy first year as a rookie, then everything changed when they put me back in the minors [with the AHL Toronto Marlies]."

After scoring 10 goals in 58 games as a Maple Leafs rookie in 2007-08, Tlusty returned to the minors before being traded to Carolina. Now in his fourth season with the Hurricanes, he is cashing in on the offensive potential that made him a first-round pick (No. 13) in 2006. It helps that he has spent most of the season skating with Eric Staal and Alex Semin, who combined for five points in the win over Pittsburgh.

"Those guys always make a play," said Tlusty, who has nine goals and 15 points after 19 games. "They're such good players and strong players. So you just try to create a little confusion with some hard work in the offensive zone. You just put yourself in a good position to be open for a pass from them. They can always find you."

The did just that in the second period. With the score tied 1-1 after 20 minutes, Staal was stymied on a wraparound attempt by Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Hurricanes captain poked the puck free to Tlusty, who pumped in the go-ahead goal from the left doorstep.

After Jeff Skinner extended the lead to 3-1 less than two minutes later, it was Semin's turn to set up Tlusty. Staal won a puck battle behind the net and fed Semin, who put the puck on Tlusty's tape in the slot.

"He plays the game the right way," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said of Tlusty. "Offensively, when Alex and Eric use their size and strength to hold people off with the puck, he just finds the seams, and he's showing that he can score at this level on a consistent basis. He's really reading the game well off the two of them."

It was the first game against his old team for Jordan Staal, who was traded by the Penguins to the Hurricanes last June.

"It's fun when you're playing against your former team. It makes for a special challenge," he said. "It was a little weird playing against those guys, but it turned out to be a good night for us."

The Hurricanes had the better of play all night, due to some lackluster play by the Penguins in their defensive zone. All three of Carolina's second-period goals came from a player who was left uncovered.

"Tonight we gave up four goals around our own net and in the blue paint," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "We know they are good there, and both Staals bring it to the net. We were not very good there, and we left our goaltender out to dry."

Pittsburgh's loss comes on the heels of a 6-4 defeat at Florida, where the Penguins gave up four power-play goals. The consecutive road losses left the Penguins coach doing some soul searching, particularly after starting the season 8-2-0 on the road.

"If Florida and Carolina aren't the type of buildings that give you the same focus as Madison Square Garden or Philly, then that is something we have to address," he said. "We just can't show up in a building in Florida and Carolina and think it's going to be an easy game where we get two points."

After Chris Kunitz opened the scoring in the first period off of a beautiful pass from Sidney Crosby, the Penguins offense went flat. The power play, which had hit the scoresheet in 12 straight games, was scoreless in 8:31 of ice time.

"We controlled the game," said Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward, who made 26 saves. "It was just a great effort on our part. We did a really good job shutting down their top players, and you could sense they were getting a little bit frustrated with it."

The win was important for Ward, who is still rounding into form this season after a few recent rocky outings.

"He's focused right now," Muller said. "When he plays like that, he's up there with the elite goalies. I like how he was mentally prepared. He had three solid periods. That's a great game to build on."

Staal was a factor throughout the game, beginning with his game-tying goal with 25 seconds remaining in the first period. He got a stick on Semin's wrister from the top of the slot - the first of three points on the night for Staal.

"Whenever you score in the last minute of any period, it's huge," said Staal. "It kind of got the momentum on our side and we followed through with that. Just a solid win and everyone contributed."

Not the least of whom was Tlusty. At the start of the season, the Hurricanes felt that Staal and Semin were two-thirds of a potentially dominant scoring line. Now it's clear that Tlusty is capable of playing at the same level.

"I'm just enjoying my time and building the confidence, playing with two of the best players in the NHL," Tlusty said. "It's enjoyable every single day, every single shift with them. You just go out there and enjoy it. That's what hockey is about, right?"

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