RALEIGH, N.C. – So this is what the Carolina Hurricanes needed to get back on track: A return home, a visit from the team they always seem to beat, and a dramatic goal from their all-star centre.
Eric Staal scored with 1:36 remaining to lift the Hurricanes past the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Thursday night.
Matt Cullen had a goal and an assist, Chad LaRose also scored and Cam Ward earned his 100th NHL victory for the Hurricanes. Carolina, which had lost six of eight, played just its second home game since Jan. 6 and improved to 4-0 against the Lightning.
“We talked about it before the game, (that) this is a huge 30-something games for us,” Staal said, referring to the Hurricanes’ remaining 32 games. “We’ve got to win. … We’ve got to bring our consistent work ethic and effort every night. Our defence did a tremendous job tonight of blocking shots – they did good with the sticks, real solid.
“Obviously, Cam was big. We’re going to need him to be the rest of the way.”
Mark Recchi had a goal and an assist, and Ryan Malone also scored for Tampa Bay, which was denied its first four-game winning streak since November 2007 and fell nine points behind the Hurricanes in the Southeast Division.
“The margin of error is so small now that a loss like this, especially to a team we’re trying to catch, is a huge loss,” Lightning center Jeff Halpern said. “Every loss right now is a big loss.”
Staal capped the critical flurry of late activity that he started by taking the puck off the stick of Martin St. Louis.
Sergei Samsonov whiffed on a slap shot from the slot and couldn’t stuff home the rebound. Neither could Tuomo Ruutu, but Staal was parked to goalie Mike Smith’s left and snapped the puck past him for his team-leading 21st goal.
“(Samsonov) fanned on the shot, but he faked everybody out, and the goalie was down, and he eventually got a shot off enough,” Staal said. “I picked up the garbage.”
Ward, making his 15th straight start, stopped 27 shots – including all 22 he faced in the final two periods – and improved to 6-1 in his last seven starts against the Lightning. Smith made 28 saves but fell to 0-4-2 against Carolina.
“I don’t think it was late (in the game) that cost us,” Smith said. “It was the two before that. If you want to be a big-time goalie in this league, you’ve got to help the team win. You can’t let in goals like that. You can’t give the puck away like that. I just cost the team two points.”
The Hurricanes – and especially Ward – did a solid job of shutting down all-stars Vincent Lecavalier and St. Louis. Lecavalier had six goals and four assists in his previous seven games, and St. Louis had five goals and eight assists in his last 10.
“Our defence did a great job of containing them,” Staal said. “They were in our end a little bit, but I don’t think they had any real high-quality chances. When they did, Cam made the saves, and that’s what you need.”
This one seemed headed for overtime after Malone tied it with 14:50 remaining. Recchi found him streaking, and Malone tapped the puck in for his second goal in two games.
Cullen gave Carolina a 2-1 lead late in the second when he tracked down the puck behind the net, skated around Smith’s glove side and tucked a shot inside the right post for his 11th goal and first in seven games. Earlier in that period, he assisted on LaRose’s tying goal – the Hurricanes’ first short-handed score of the season.
Carolina was the only team in the NHL that hadn’t scored while short-handed.
“They’ve got two of the best power-play players in the world out there, and our penalty kill did an outstanding job,” Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. “Getting a short-handed goal like that, that’s more than being able to shut that team down. It’s a huge, huge lift for us.”
Notes: Tampa Bay RW Steve Downie has points in four straight games. … The Hurricanes recalled D Bryan Rodney from Albany (AHL) and placed D Niclas Wallin (leg) on injured reserve. Carolina RW Scott Walker (upper body) also was out with an injury. … The Lightning recalled G Riku Helenius from Norfolk (AHL) to replace G Karri Ramo, who was sent back to serve a six-game suspension for leaving the bench during a fight. … The Hurricanes honored late North Carolina State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow with a brief video tribute. The Hall of Famer died last weekend after a two-decade fight against breast cancer.