RALEIGH, N.C. – Eric and Jordan Staal scored all the goals the Carolina Hurricanes needed in beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-2 at PNC Arena on Monday.
Along with goaltender Anton Khudobin who made 22 saves to win his 11th game of the season and fourth in a row, the Staals combined to help Carolina stage one of its most impressive comebacks of the year.
The Hurricanes understood that they would be playing one of their most important games of the season when they faced off against the Blue Jackets as they sat only a point behind them with Columbus seated in the final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Division standings.
Heading into the two teams’ third meeting of the season, it was as even a matchup as you could have as both teams had won nine of their last 12 games played.
Right from the opening faceoff it was a choppy battle for puck possession and scoring opportunities and one which the Hurricanes wanted to get on the right side of after having lost the two previous games against the Blue Jackets.
Columbus dominated much of the opening period outshooting Carolina early on and scoring two goals in a 17-second span from Derek Mackenzie and RJ Umberger that put them ahead 2-0 at the 2:42 mark.
As the Hurricanes attempted to play their 200-foot game with their chip-and-chase style of play, Columbus netminder Sergei Bobrovsky would many times play the puck behind his goal, setting it up for his defenseman to pick up and begin the breakout quicker than the Carolina forechecking unit could get in to battle for it.
“They played their game the first 10 minutes,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said.
“Can’t make any excuses, but we’ve played a lot of games these last few days and it looked like we’re a step behind and we needed to be a step ahead of them. So they played their game, they came out the right way and played hard and created turnovers and capitalized and you’re down two-zip right away.”
The extra jump and step that the Blue Jackets had in getting to loose pucks and winning possession battles along the boards kept Carolina reaching to put together scoring chances.
A power play opportunity with 8:05 remaining in the period allowed the Hurricanes to get more shots on Bobrovsky as the period played out, but the Russian netminder continued to deny them any opportunity of putting anything past him.
With 35 seconds left, the Hurricanes’ best chance to get on the board came on a wraparound pass out of the corner from Jordan into Bobrovsky’s crease where defenseman Mike Komisarek waited after pinching in from the point.
Bobrovsky smothered the puck to end the play and the Blue Jackets carried the 2-0 lead into the first intermission.
“We knew it was going to be a close game from the start,” Eric said.
“We didn’t want to spot ‘em two early, but we did. We stayed with it and got better as the game went on. I thought we got stronger and stronger, and then eventually it broke through in the third period.”
Trailing 2-0, Carolina came out with more energy and was able to gain the Columbus zone more easily and placed numerous shots on Bobrovsky throughout the second period.
The Hurricanes’ third and fourth line units did exceptional work in continuing to soften the Columbus defense that had to rely on its goalie to keep their two-goal lead intact until Carolina’s leaders eventually took control.
“It was good to see a little less frustration in games like this right now with our leaders,” Muller said.
“Instead they’re vocal, and they battled through and found a way to win a hockey game for us. Everyone should feel a part of it and had contributed, but if your best players come through like that, that’s a great sign.”
Another power play opportunity with 4:21 remaining in the period still couldn’t end the Hurricanes’ five-plus period drought in scoring a goal against Brobrovsky.
However, the Hurricanes finally got the break they needed as their captain beat Bobrovsky with a shot low and between his pads to narrow the score at 11:18.
Staal was just getting started because a minute later he won the faceoff deep in the Columbus zone and set up the tying goal as well.
After Jiri Tlusty picked the puck up in the corner to Bobrovsky’s right, he slid it towards Staal who was waiting for the pass in the slot.
He got his stick on it and one-timed a rising, bobbling shot that eluded the keeper and sailed into the top corner to even the score 2-2 with 7:42 to play.
With the building energized, it was brother Jordan’s turn in helping the team to complete the comeback.
Playing in his 100th game with Carolina, Staal couldn’t have made the milestone a more memorable one than by scoring the game-winning goal.
After linemates Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm advanced the puck, Jordan headed towards the Columbus net on a one-on-one against Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray.
Using his long reach and width, Staal put a toe drag move on the defenseman that created space for him to draw it forward to his backhand before pushing the puck past a sprawling Bobrovsky who watched it bank off the post and into the net.
Recording his 11th goal of the season, Jordan vividly recalled how it all came about.
“Skinny made a great play at the wall to Lindy,” he said.
“Lindy held that guy there and I had some speed comin’ low and just kind of went for it from there. I saw the guy there and just tried to get my reach out there to pull him as far as I can over and pull it to the other side and really tried to get it on net. I was lucky enough to get a fortunate bounce.”
Winning their fourth game in as many games, the win over the Blue Jackets was an important one to celebrate, but it was just the first of a back-to-back set as the team prepared to leave for Montreal immediately following the game.
“Tonight was a real test,” Muller said.
“Now we can’t let anyone off the hook and no excuses. It’s the schedule – you can’t do anything about it. We’re gonna’ go up against a team that is not happy about their game. They’ve had a day off today, a big practice yesterday – they wanna’ get their game goin’. This is like playoff-style hockey. You gotta’ grind through it when you’re tired whether it’s mental or physical. You gotta’ find a way to get the job done.”
To that end, before facing off against the Blue Jackets, the Hurricanes recalled forward Aaron Palushaj from the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League (AHL) who arrived in Raleigh ready to travel with the team up North.
Palushaj has played in all 41 of the Checkers’ games thus far this season, and leads the team in assists (24) and points (39).
He made his Hurricanes debut on Jan. 5, in Carolina’s 2-1 win against Nashville at PNC Arena, and has played in 67 career NHL regular-season games with Montreal, Colorado and Carolina, scoring three goals and earning 11 assists (14 points).
“We’re thinkin’ ahead,” Muller said.
“Look at the amount of games were playin’. If we need to rest a guy, he’s here rather than fly him in tomorrow. Palush has been playin’ really well down there. He’s an ex-Hab, so if we throw him in, it’s an old team (to him). He played really well when he was here.”