Gritty win gives ‘Canes boost before long trip

RALEIGH, NC — As the Carolina Hurricanes embark on a six-game road swing that won’t bring them back for another home game until Valentine’s Day, they can do so knowing they’re capable of handling any style.

Carolina is built to score and play fast, but on Friday night at PNC Arena, the only goal scored was by Hurricanes’ star center Eric Staal in the first period. The ‘Canes then spent the rest of the night fighting off the Ottawa Senators, proving they can also win a grinder reliant on not just excellent goaltending, but terrific play in front of the net-minder.

It helped that backup goalie Dan Ellis once again performed like he should be No. 1 in net, turning back 33 Ottawa shots. Several were fantastic glove saves that revealed his quickness. In eight periods in goal thus far, Ellis has allowed just two goals and is second in the NHL in save percentage. Carolina (3-3) is also 2-0 in his starts, which also include a 3-1 win at Buffalo a week ago.

Ellis says playing for Carolina’s minor league affiliate in Charlotte during the lockout has given him an edge over regular goaltender Cam Ward, who has struggled thus far.

“I think those games early on, playing in the American (Hockey) League, gave me the chance to find my own game. To stay fresh it’s difficult to catch a moving train with the way the season started.” Ellis said. “Those games in Charlotte were a great lesson for me.”

Also big on the night was a four-minute penalty kill by the ‘Canes in the second period that set the tone for the rest of the game. It proved this team can grind when it has to, and was also a huge improvement from Monday night, when special teams let the ‘Canes down.

Defenseman Jamie McBain received a double-minor for high sticking, and while he sat in the box the ‘Canes fought off the Senators. Justin Faulk cleared the puck one time, Jay Harrison twice, and along with Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen and the gang, Carolina did some tremendous work in front of Ellis. Ottawa got essentially nothing in that stretch.

“We ran a bunch of guys rather than shorten the bench on them,” ‘Canes coach Kirk Muller explained. “We used a lot of penalty killers. They were fresh. They did a great job going hard on short shifts rotating a lot and it gave them energy to go kill four minutes.”

On the offensive end, another positive is that Staal scored his fifth goal of the season and Jeff Skinner once hit the post and another time the cross bar, barely missing out on scoring in a fifth consecutive game. Skinner has five goals on the season and is well ahead of the total of his first two campaigns.

As a rookie, Skinner didn’t net his fifth goal until Carolina’s 14th game — last season it came in the Hurricanes’ 12th contest.

For Staal, he has five goals in six games, though a year ago, his fifth goal didn’t happen until Carolina’s 25th contest. Obviously, a lot is different this time around.

“It was a tough start last year with everything,” Staal said. “I definitely credit the teammates; the two guys I’m playing with are better players. I think overall we’ve got a deeper team. Jordan down in the middle on the second line — he and Skins playing well kind of takes some pressure off of me.

“When you’ve got other guys that are around that can contribute, you can just play your game and focus on the big picture.”

If a team has to spend two weeks away from home, you can’t ask for a better vibe heading to the tarmac.

The Hurricanes’ two stars are scoring at such an impressive pace, while the team is learning to to grind out games and develop chemistry on its lines. Plus, the backup goaltender is as hot as anyone in the NHL.

Two games in Philadelphia and one each in Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey and in Brooklyn against the Islanders will reveal a lot about this team and the direction it’s headed.

It sure received a nice boost on Friday night.