RALEIGH, N.C. – No one would blame the Carolina Hurricanes if they took a few minutes before each game simply to introduce themselves to each other. With trades, injuries and other moves in the past two months, plenty of new faces made their way into the locker room.
Somehow, it all appears to be coming together.
“With the system we play, it’s pretty easy for guys to come in and be comfortable,” mainstay Eric Staal said. “You know you’re going to have to skate, and move your feet, and attack, attack, attack.”
That’s exactly what happened Saturday night.
Newcomer Sergei Samsonov had two goals, Staal added a goal and two assists and Carolina easily handled the penalty-prone Tampa Bay Lightning 5-1.
Tuomo Ruutu, acquired at the trade deadline, scored for the first time for the Hurricanes, who won for the fourth time in five games to remain in control of the Southeast Division with about a month left in the regular season. With 73 points, Carolina now leads Washington by five points.
“You look at the standings every morning and know there are no bye games,” said Samsonov, claimed on re-entry waivers from Chicago on Jan. 8. “Every game is important.”
Ruutu joined the line of Staal and Erik Cole, taking the place of the injured Ray Whitney.
“I only had one practice with those guys,” said Ruutu, who left the Blackhawks, a team virtually eliminated from playoff contention, to join Carolina. “It’s almost like the playoffs for us now.”
Joseph Corvo also had a goal and Cam Ward made 22 saves, including 18 in the first two periods. In the final 20 minutes, the Lightning hardly put up a fight, finishing with four shots as the Hurricanes put the game away.
“Right now, it’s tough,” Tampa Bay right wing Martin St. Louis said. “We just can’t cheat and expect it’s going to come.”
Perhaps it was the fact that the Lightning were playing their second game in as many nights, or that they are hopelessly out of the playoff chase. Either way, Carolina essentially did whatever it wanted over the final 50 minutes.
“You knew they were playing the second night of a back-to-back, so we had to make sure we jumped on them,” Staal said. “It was solid. We skated very well.”
Jeff Halpern actually gave Tampa Bay the early lead, working his way through a scrum in front of the net to get the puck past Ward early in the game. Staal scored in much the same fashion about 3 1/2 minutes later to tie it, and then came the second period.
Five different players combined for five penalties for the Lightning – the Hurricanes were called for one, but it came along with one for Halpern to lead to a 4-on-4 – and left the home team totally in control.
One of the penalties was called on Tampa Bay goaltender Mike Smith, who tripped a Carolina player skating through the crease.
“That was a big turning point,” Halpern said. “We didn’t seem to get back to the sustained offence after that. It put us on our heels.”
While Carolina only converted one of the chances with the man-advantage, Corvo’s goal came seconds after one ended, when he sent a slap shot through traffic that got by Smith. That gave the Hurricanes the lead for good and highlighted what an interesting season this has been for them.
Corvo started the season with Ottawa and came south Feb. 11 along with Patrick Eaves, in exchange for Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman, two stalwarts from Carolina’s run to the 2006 Stanley Cup championship. They are hardly the one relatively new members of team, with Samsonov (claimed on re-entry waivers from Chicago) and Ruutu (traded from Chicago for Andrew Ladd) coming aboard since Jan. 8.
In addition, veteran minor leaguers Keith Aucoin, Tim Conboy, Wade Brookbank and Ryan Bayda have enjoyed their first extended playing time in the NHL. Together, these new players have helped make up for the loss of captain Rod Brind’Amour, likely out for the season with a knee injury.
“When I came here, it felt like I had played here five years,” said Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason, acquired in a trade before last season. “We’re all a close-knit group.”
Notes: Tampa Bay returns home to play Pittsburgh on Tuesday, then goes on the road for three consecutive games Hall of Famer Ron Francis, a former Carolina captain, celebrated his 45th birthday by attending the game.