RALEIGH, N.C. - These Carolina Hurricanes don't look much like the group that started the season. Half the active roster is new, two holdovers are scoring like perhaps never before - and not surprisingly, they're finally winning.
Eric Staal had three goals and two assists and Carolina beat Montreal 5-2 on Thursday night in its home finale to prevent the Canadiens from clinching a playoff berth. Chad LaRose added two goals and two assists in his first career four-point game.
"Any time you can score three goals in a game, it's pretty cool. And it's not easy," Staal said. "You've got to have the right things happen for you. You've got to have the right guys playing with you, making great plays. That was the case tonight."
LaRose and Staal - who have combined for 16 points in two games - scored 3½ minutes apart in the second period, then scored 1½ minutes apart in the third to seal the Hurricanes' second straight win.
Out of the playoff chase a year after reaching the Eastern Conference final, they're 20-8-3 in their last 31 games - markedly better than their 3-12-5 start.
"We gave ourselves a chance ... to make the playoffs, and it was too big a hole," Staal said. "That's what makes it more frustrating now, is we do have a good group of players here that compete every night. Obviously, it was just a little bit too high of a hill to climb."
Brian Gionta and Marc-Andre Bergeron scored for Montreal, which never led. The Canadiens could have wrapped up a post-season berth with one point but instead lost their second straight, and they could have clinched the No. 6 seed with consecutive season-ending wins against Carolina and Toronto. Instead, without some help, their playoff chances might come down to getting a point Saturday against the Maple Leafs.
"We just didn't play a good team game," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said.
Bergeron pulled the Canadiens to 3-2 with 16:57 left with a blast from the blue line 21 seconds after Staal's second goal. LaRose then made it 4-2 by tapping in Staal's rebound with 2:38 left.
And Staal polished off his club-record 10th career hat trick with an empty-netter with 1:15 left. He entered tied with Hall of Famer Ron Francis in the Hurricanes-Hartford Whalers' record book.
"It was a good night, and it ended right - hats on the ice," LaRose said.
Jaroslav Halak, making his fourth straight start since Carolina beat Carey Price on March 31, stopped 28 shots. Cam Ward made 15 of his 30 saves in the third period for the Hurricanes.
Because of injuries and a flood of trade-deadline deals, there were 10 Carolina players active for the home finale who didn't skate in the Oct. 2 opener. More roster tweaks could be on the way this off-season when left wing Ray Whitney becomes an unrestricted free agent.
"A lot of young guys in (Carolina's) lineup, and playing against a team that's fighting for its playoff lives," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "And you all know what that means up in Montreal."
But the Hurricanes did have Staal and LaRose - and they were plenty.
They combined for seven points Tuesday night in a win at Tampa Bay, then outdid themselves in this one.
"It's hard to be off-sync with him," LaRose said.
They got things started early in the second period when Staal found LaRose, who popped the puck off Halak's pads, and Staal swooped in with a backhand at 18:36. Then, they hooked up again a few minutes later to make it 2-0, with LaRose pushing a backhander past Halak as he was being dragged down with 15:09 left.
"I didn't like our start. I didn't think we played well in the beginning of the game, became a little bit too passive, I thought," left wing Michael Cammalleri said. "Then we tried to pour it on, but too little, too late, and we weren't able to find goals."
The Hurricanes' duo couldn't have helped but furthered their jump start in their joint candidacy for spots in next year's all-star game, which was awarded to Raleigh earlier Thursday. In fact, some of the loudest cheers of the night came when a scoreboard video was shown featuring NHL commissioner Gary Bettman congratulating the "Caniacs" for helping land the all-star game.
NOTES: The Hurricanes recalled defencemen Casey Borer and Tim Conboy from Albany of the AHL. Borer made his first NHL appearance since he broke a vertebra in his neck in the River Rats' bus crash in February 2009. ... Montreal D Jaroslav Spacek (flu) was back on the ice missing three games.