RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes (26-21-9) have just one game left before the Olympic break, and the sense of urgency showed in a 5-1 dominating win over the Florida Panthers (22-29-7).
"That was actually the game plan was to come out, just stay on them, get pucks behind them, get shots to the net, keep getting our chances and wear them out," defenseman Brett Bellemore said.
The Hurricanes took a 2-0 lead in the first 10:44 of the game and never looked back, rolling their lines with ease throughout. And it’s a good strategy — they are 16-1-4 this season when scoring first. Too often, it’s been a bad omen when even a lesser opponent has come on to the ice at PNC Arena and gotten a quick goal. That didn’t happen, and the Hurricanes were completely focused.
That focus is necessary, though. The Hurricanes are now fifth in the Metropolitan Division, but every team from 3-7 is separated by just three points. And even the second-place team (the Rangers) is just six points ahead of the Hurricanes (and two other teams tied at 61 points).
"These are big games right now. If you look at the schedule and look at the standings over there," Bellemore said, pointing at a white board in the corner of the Hurricanes’ locker room with the standings written on them, "it’s pretty tight. So every win right now is pretty big."
Bellemore certainly played that way. He had just the second goal of his NHL career, but the highlight of the game for the fans certainly seems to be his five-minute fighting penalty he got for mixing it up with Florida’s Erik Gudbranson.
"Lately I’ve been kind of trying to get back into playing mean, playing with an edge and maybe I’ll mix it up a little bit. I’m happy with it and hopefully I can continue to do that," Bellemore said.
He was playfully critiqued on his fighting style afterwards — he went to the body, a somewhat unorthodox NHL fighting style — but he wasn’t too worried about the aesthetics of it. "I was kind of in the position where I couldn’t really reach high. It was there, so why not?" He grinned.
Bellemore didn’t dress from January 18-28 — missing seven games — and the 25-year-old clearly got the message his head coach, Kirk Muller, was trying to send.
"I think for the young guys, it’s always good sometimes to send a little message, and it’s great to say how they respond," Muller said. "I think (Bellemore) realized that hey, you’re as good as your last game. He has to play hard and compete. So he took it in stride.
"He wasn’t happy about it, but when he got a chance to get back in, he was playing aggressive again. He got his big goal tonight. But it’s his overall physical presence that I thought his been good since he’s been back in the lineup."
His teammates feed off of that, too.
Goalie Anton Khudobin, who was the second star of the game for his 34 saves on 35 shots he faced, appreciated Bellemore’s effort.
"His work ethic, it was at a really, really high level. I think he battles every game. That’s what I can tell," Khudobin said. "He battled so hard today. He saved one goal in the third period and if they had scored that, you never know how the game would turn on. So he was really big for us tonight."
Khudobin was named the First Star for the month of January earlier this week, and he showed why at times against the Panthers, having to do a lot more work in goal than he perhaps anticipated as the defense left him out to dry a few times.
"He’s unbelievable. The defense, we have a good trust in him if we miss up or it gets through somehow, that he’s there to bail us out," Bellemore said.
The Hurricanes’ longtime fixture in goal, Cam Ward, is back and healthy. So it remains to be seen if Khudobin will start in goal for the Hurricanes against the Canadiens in the final game before the Olympic break on Saturday, particularly since it’s a back-to-back. And Muller wasn’t telling. "We’ll find out tomorrow," Muller said with a sly grin.
Khudobin is rolling, though, and it’s going to be difficult to pull such a hot goalie when every point is so critical.
This is the place Khudobin has worked so hard throughout his career to be at, too.
"I was getting to this level I would say all my six years, I guess," Khudobin said. "I wanted to be that kind of guy, to get in this rhythm and just play and play and play. I think coaches trust me right now and are going to continue to trust me. It’s going to be great. For goalies, it’s always important to play a lot of games to feel comfortable."