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DeCock: From lowest point, Hurricanes haven’t looked back

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH It was only 11 days ago that the Carolina Hurricanes lost their fifth straight game at the Toronto Maple Leafs. On New Year’s Eve, two days later, they were down three goals to the Montreal Canadiens after two dismal periods.

It was the lowest point of their entire season. It really wasn’t that long ago. And yet it could hardly have seemed farther away Thursday night as the Hurricanes systematically picked apart those same Maple Leafs for their fifth straight win, 6-1.

How quickly they have turned things around, without Cam Ward and Eric Staal. It started with the five goals in 21:49 to beat the Canadiens in overtime, and the Hurricanes have only gathered momentum since.

While the NHL’s loser point for going to overtime has escalated the stakes even at this point in the season because it’s so hard to make up any ground in the standings, it isn’t often there is this much on the line at this point in the season. This was one of those rare occasions.

As January games go, this one was freighted with meaning. Not only are the slumping Leafs and streaking Hurricanes jockeying for wild-card position already, but the Hurricanes were trying to win five in a row for the first time since 2010 riding the goal-scoring contributions of the NHL’s hottest player, Jeff Skinner.

Tim Gleason was back in town with Toronto only eight days after the Hurricanes traded him to the Leafs for John-Michael Liles, Anton Khudobin was trying to lay permanent claim to the Carolina net and Alexander Semin had an Olympic snub to stew over (as did Eric Staal, who remains out injured).

Meanwhile, the entire team was happy to be back home after a trip to Buffalo that turned into the road trip from hell – “if hell froze over, I suppose,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. The Hurricanes flew into a fearsome blizzard on Monday, couldn’t get out Tuesday after their game against the Sabres was understandably postponed, then endured a 2 a.m. fire alarm and a harrowing takeoff in whiteout conditions Wednesday to get back for this.

It was an awful lot to cram into one weeknight game in January.

So what happened? A Gleason deflection ended up in the Toronto net for the game’s first goal, by Zach Boychuk. Skinner scored his 17th goal in as many games. Liles scored against his former team. Jordan Staal scored short-handed. Khudobin stopped 25 of 26 shots.

Talk about a plan coming together. It was as dominant a performance as the Hurricanes have fashioned on home ice this season, start to finish. And it only served to underline how far the Hurricanes have come in such a short period of time.

Even in the darkest moments, Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller preached “stay the course,” believing the Hurricanes were playing the way they needed to play to be successful, just not getting the results they needed. The Montreal game was a microcosm of this entire stretch, from unwatchable to unbeatable in a matter of minutes. The Hurricanes never looked back.

“We were playing good hockey prior to that,” Muller said. “We just weren’t getting good results. At that time, it was more about what we were doing to ourselves than what anyone was doing to us. We just tried to emphasize playing the same way and the results would follow. We’re scoring goals right now, and it all just kind of came together in the third period against Montreal.”

They persevered. And now they’re reaping the rewards.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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