Three points from the Hurricanes’ 4-3 win over the Sabres on Tuesday:
1) Being healthy helps
Their injury crisis largely abated -- Joni Pitkanen and Tim Brent remain out, and Cam Ward has joined them, but everyone else is back -- the Hurricanes have recaptured the momentum they had before half the team got hurt.
After their initial two-game stumble to start the season, the Hurricanes ripped off a 8-2-1 run before the injury bug bit hard and they lost four of the next five. Restored to health, for the most part, they’ve won four straight, scoring 17 goals in the process. That makes the current stretch of schedule congestion -- nine games in 16 days -- a little more palatable.
“When you’re going great, you want to keep the momentum going,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said.
Justin Peters played well enough with Ward out against the Sabres, particularly in a third period that was played entirely at his feet, but it’ll be up to Peters and Dan Ellis to maintain that level of play the rest of the way, although scoring four a game certainly helps.
2) The Nash factor
Over the past nine games, his first NHL experience, Riley Nash has stabilized the Hurricanes’ third line, helping provide the scoring depth they’ve sorely lacked this season while perhaps opening the door to some trade possibilities.
Nash has one goal and three assists in those nine games, but his ability to hold down the third-line center position at both ends of the ice enabled Jussi Jokinen to move to the wing, and Jokinen has three goals and three assists over that span. Patrick Dwyer, the right wing on that line Tuesday, has four assists.
Nash has excellent hockey sense and is defensively responsible; the questions surrounding his future have been about his ability to produce offensively. At the moment, he looks like a good fit with Jokinen and Dwyer.
If Nash can hold down that position, it may open the door for a trade when Brent is healthy. While the Hurricanes like having Brent’s right shot on the power play, he’d be an attractive commodity to a team looking for a veteran defensive presence down the middle -- like the NHL-leading Chicago Blackhawks. The emergence of Nash and presence of Jeremy Welsh and Brent Sutter might make it possible for the Hurricanes to get an asset for Brent, who makes $800,000 in the final year of his contract.
Either way, the Hurricanes have needed help on the third line. Nash may be the answer they’ve been looking for -- and if they can avoid a trade to shore up the third line, that leaves more assets available to shore up the blue line, where the Hurricanes really need help (as Tuesday’s third period demonstrated).
3) From negative to positive
When Muller took over as coach last November, Eric Staal was last in the NHL in plus/minus at minus-22. He’ll wake up this morning tied with linemate Alexander Semin for the league lead at plus-19. That turnaround is nothing short of astounding.
Staal downplayed both figures -- “It’s a bad stat,” he said -- but credited the Hurricanes’ increased depth for the statistical swing, particularly having a second line centered by his brother Jordan, but Muller thought it also reflected the way Staal has embraced playing a complete game.
“It can be a bit of an overrated stat,” Muller said. “In this case, I think Eric has made a huge commitment to play the game the right way without the puck. He takes a lot of pride in that. He’s playing hard at both ends. For me, he’s gone from an offensive guy to a two-way center. When your leaders are leading like that, everyone follows.”