After Tuesday’s loss, the easy decision would have been to swap struggling defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti out of the lineup for Jamie McBain, a healthy scratch in the Hurricanes’ first two games. No one would have raised an eyebrow.
Instead, veteran Joe Corvo was a healthy scratch Thursday against the Sabres and Sanguinetti stayed in. It was a curious, but thoughtful, decision on Muller’s part, sending a message of accountability to the veterans while bolstering Sanguinetti’s wounded confidence.
McBain played well. Sanguinetti played well. And the Hurricanes produced their best defensive performance of the season in the 6-3 win over Buffalo.
“We’re feel we’re going to probably use seven (defensemen) right now, just mix them in and out,” Muller said. “Basically, ‘Sangs’ has had a really good first half down in Charlotte. He came up and his confidence wasn’t top but he was playing well, so we thought ‘Harry’ (Jay Harrison) would be a good partner to just calm him down a little bit, take a little pressure off of him, and use the other guys on the power play and just let him concentrate on the five-on-five stuff.
“He responded well. He was solid. And McBain jumped in tonight and was really strong. I thought our ‘D’ were much more aggressive tonight. We played harder defending.”
The Hurricanes really liked the way Sanguinetti had played for Charlotte (AHL) during the lockout and with the NHLers during the abbreviated training camp. He beat out McBain for a spot in the opening-night lineup on merit and even saw power-play time, but was partially at fault for the first goal of the season, less than four minutes in -- he was caught in no-man’s land in front of the Carolina net as Peter Mueller fed Jonathan Huberdeau for the first of four first-perriod Florida goals on Saturday -- and combined with Joni Pitkanen for a dismal performance in Tuesday’s loss to Tampa.
Few expected him to play Thursday, but there he was -- playing well. Late in the first period, Sanguinetti made a daring play to break up a Buffalo attack in the neutral zone. It was the kind of play he hadn’t been making in the first two games, but he showed the moxie to step up and take charge.
A first-round pick of the Rangers in 2006, Sanguinetti has been waiting a long time for a chance like this, and if he had come out of the lineup Thursday, who knows how long he might have waited to get back in if McBain played well.
“Nerves are the biggest thing the first couple of games,” Sanguinetti said. “You’re trying to get comfortable and at the same time build chemistry with guys and that confidence that they’re going to be there to support you. I just kind of focus on every game getting better and making sure I’m ready to go every night.”
Corvo, like many of Carolina’s veterans, had struggled in the first two games as well, but it isn’t often a coach will choose to bench a veteran over a younger player like Sanguinetti or McBain. For certain, notice was taken in the dressing room -- and it may well have been a factor in Thursday’s imrovement.
(Pitkanen, it should also be noted, combined with McBain for a nifty passing combo right off a center-ice faceoff to set up Eric Staal’s first goal, only nine seconds after Skinner made it 3-2, and also set up Staal’s second with a daring pinch deep in the offensive zone to force a turnover and feed Staal for a wide-open shot. He finished plus-4.)
The decision to leave Sanguinetti in the lineup wasn’t the only coaching move that has paid dividends for Muller. He can also take partial credit for Jeff Skinner’s two-goal performance, a second straight solid game for Skinner after the coach criticized his admittedly poor opening-night play.
“He’s a coach that likes to talk to his players,” Skinner said. “He communicates well with them. It helps a player I think, especially going through a unique situation. He’s been through a shortened season before, so he knows things that we haven’t been through. It’s nice to have that sort of communication.”
Muller also put Zac Dalpe, who sat out Tuesday after missing Monday’s practice due to illness, back with Jordan Staal and Skinner, and Dalpe looked like a natural fit there.
Of course, after a six-goal outburst, many of a coach’s moves are going to look pretty smart. But the decision to keep Sanguinetti in the lineup was a gutsy one, and it paid off -- maybe not just Thursday but going forward as well, if Sanguinetti can build on this going forward.