RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes continued taking long strides and used puck possession to win another hockey game.
Jeff Skinner scored the winning goal in overtime to cap off a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at PNC Arena on Tuesday.
Powered by the combined offensive output of captain Eric Staal (1g, 1a), Kris Versteeg (1g, 1a), and Elias Lindholm (3a), Carolina claimed its third win following back-to-back victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets last weekend.
As a result, the Hurricanes continued to move closer to a wildcard playoff spot.
The win placed Carolina a game over the .500 mark, sitting with a record of 19-18-7 and 45 points, two points behind the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, the two teams currently toeing the cut line in the standings.
“We’ve been goin’ pretty good here for a while,” Staal said of his line’s play.
“Just the goals haven’t been as easy to come by as you would’ve liked, but it feels like they’re comin’ a little bit more. Two guys that can play offensively, pucks followin’ Steeger around a little bit, and it’s nice to be in the right spot at the right time to be rewarded with that. And Lindy’s playin’ real hard. When he’s skatin’ and bein’ physical, he can make the plays after. When he’s movin’ like he has been lately, he’s a difference maker.”
Starting netminders Cam Ward (23 saves) for Carolina and Marc-Andre Fleury (18 saves) for Pittsburgh (20-16-6) were tested with five shots apiece during a scoreless first period.
Taking overlapping penalties, the Hurricanes defended the man-down sequences successfully.
Carolina didn’t capitalize on the man-up opportunity it had during the opening 20 minutes either.
Instead the Hurricanes relied on their dogged forechecking to translate opportunities into even-strength goals.
“I think we’re playin’ better,” Carolina head coach Bill Peters said.
“I think we have the ability to stick with the game better. We’ve learned from some of those earlier mistakes, whether it’s goin’ back to last year or earlier this year. The young guys have been put in that situation for the first time, and now they are more comfortable.”
Staal scored his ninth of the season at 3:52 and put Carolina ahead 1-0 by finishing off a tic-tac-toe setup originated by Lindholm.
After claiming the puck off a body check, Lindholm found Versteeg by Fleury’s right post which caused the netminder to overplay his position in the crease.
Versteeg waited a second and slid the puck to Staal who was wide open, and easily fired the puck into the open side of the net.
The pace of play between both sides picked up throughout the period with more movement in a North-South direction rather than the East-West movement that dominated play in the neutral zone during the first 20 minutes.
Versteeg scored his seventh of the season at the 9:44 mark after taking a shot towards Fleury that tipped off a Pittsburgh stick.
After hitting the end glass and still airborne, the puck deflected back, dropped down in front of the crossbar and bounced off Fleury’s back and into the net.
The Hurricanes were in control with what seemed a comfortable two-goal cushion, as both Lindholm and Staal helped to set Versteeg up on the play.
It was a lucky bounce, yes, but one that fell to the delight of many of the 13,012 in attendance who felt good about how the home side was playing.
However, a pushback was expected and it didn’t take Pittsburgh long to answer the call.
Winning the faceoff to Ward’s left, Pens captain Sidney Crosby won the draw towards Olli Maata on the right wall.
Maata slid the puck back to defenseman Kris Letang at the point from where he wired a shot that beat Ward high to his glove side.
He never saw it with traffic in front.
Just like that Carolina’s lead was cut to one, but the Hurricanes carried the 2-1 advantage into the third period.
Chris Kunitz eventually tied it up with 13:58 to play in the third.
Patric Hornqvist broke up a Hurricanes breakout at the blue line and dumped the puck into the corner for Crosby to pick up.
From there, Crosby held the puck behind Ward’s net until he found the streaking Kunitz cutting into the slot.
Kunitz made no mistake in netting his sixth goal of the season and evened the score 2-2.
That’s how it remained for the remainder of regulation time, earning each team a point.
Ultimately, the final 40 minutes were entertaining, but the five-minute sudden-death 3-on-3 overtime session proved to be even more so.
With rookie defensemen Noah Hanifin and Jaccob Slavin out on the ice with Jordan Staal, the Penguins threw their top forwards against them – Crosby, Letang, Phil Kessel, and subsequently Evgeni Malkin – but none of them scored.
Instead, a hooking call to Malkin gave Carolina the final man-advantage it needed to post its second overtime win in a row.
With defenseman Justin Faulk and forward Victor Rask lined up with Skinner and Lindholm, it was Skinner who became the recipient of a crisp pass from Lindholm at the top of the crease that ended it with 1:58 remaining.
“It was a good feeling to capitalize on that power play,” Skinner said.
“It was 2-on-1 at the net. Lindy made a great play, he went back door, and I just had to put it in there.”
Though Skinner scored the game-winner, it was the work of Lindholm that factored in all three goals for Carolina.
“I think I’ve been playin’ pretty good for a while,” Lindholm said.
“Since December, I started putting up some points. Also it helps that I play a lot, and coach keeps believin’ in me. I play with good players too with Eric and Steeger. They make it pretty easy for me.”
With the upcoming NHL trade deadline looming, Peters indicated that his team was valiantly trying to make an argument for remaining intact.
However realistic that is or not, considering the impending contract situations with the team captain and starting netminder, it’s that motivation that is powering this team’s current upward trend at 6-2-2 over its last 10 games.
“We’re a resilient group,” Peters said.
“It’s a good group of people in that room. It’s very solid group. They believe – they wanna make a push here. They wanna’ stay together, keep the group together. They wanna make a push and we’ve got roughly six weeks, maybe five weeks, until the end of February. We’ve gotta prove that we’re in the hunt. It’s tough to make up ground now, but we’ve gotta continue to stay with it.”