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January 27, 2014

DeCock: Canes make statement in game with playoff implications

Carolina beat Columbus in a game with big playoff implications – even for January.

Carolina Hurricanes. Columbus Blue Jackets. January. Playoff implications? Oh yes, playoff implications.

There’s so little history between these two clubs that this ranked as the most important game the two have ever played, with an opportunity for the Hurricanes to leapfrog the Blue Jackets in the standings and into a playoff spot, albeit with a mere 2 1/2 months left in the season.

They’ll play twice in the final month, so this game won’t hold onto that status for very long, but by January standards it certainly had that late-season feel.

Against a team that had their number in the first two meetings this season, and through two periods Monday, the Hurricanes produced a late rally to overcome a two-goal deficit and move into playoff position with a 3-2 win.

The comeback, on three goals by two Staal brothers, looms larger than it might otherwise because these two teams are likely to still be vying for a playoff spot come March 18 and March 29, the teams final two meetings.Until Monday’s third period, the Blue Jackets had their number. If the head-to-head series ends up being a proxy battle for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, Carolina changed the tone Monday.

It didn’t start that way. Two goals a scant 17 seconds apart only three minutes into the game – one after a funny bounce off the post, the other after a Justin Faulk giveaway – looked like they would be enough for the Blue Jackets, who had more or less stymied the Carolina offense this season and appeared to be on their way to a third win over the Hurricanes.

Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was a big reason for that. He didn’t play in the first meeting between these teams, a 4-3 Columbus win on Dec. 23, with Mike McKenna in net, but he stopped the first 64 Carolina shots he has faced this season.

After the early self-destruction, the Hurricanes slowly but surely tilted the ice back the other way, only to run up against the Boblin Wall again and again. To borrow one of Wake Forest basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik’s favorite selective rationalizations, take away those two early goals, and the Hurricanes were right in this one.

The Hurricanes were outshot 7-0 early and found themselves down 2-0. They outshot Columbus 24-8 through the rest of the first and second periods and still found themselves down 2-0.

Eric Staal’s first goal came on Carolina’s 29th shot, flipping the puck past Bobrovsky in tight quarters. Jiri Tlusty found Staal alone in front of the net one minute later to tie the score before Jordan Staal cut through traffic in the middle of the ice to beat Bobrovsky with a backhand on the rush. Three goals, four shots, 167 seconds.

And then Anton Khudobin, who wasn’t able to work miracles in the first three minutes, worked them in the final three minutes, stopping a flurry of Columbus shots to preserve the one-goal lead.

It wasn’t the Hurricanes’ best performance of the season, to be sure, but it wasn’t their worst either. They ran into a goalie that they just couldn’t figure out, then fought their way past – which is important, because this is exactly the kind of team they’re going to have to fight past to make the playoffs.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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