Power Play: Ward returns, Hurricanes beat Penguins 5-2

Cam Ward's first-period save was the highlight of his return after missing five games with an illness.

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes (27-36-10) are determined to close the season strong, and they’re off to a good start with a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-11). The Penguins were shorthanded and the Hurricanes had nothing on the line, but it was still good for the team and its head coach to see positive steps being taken.

1. The Staal-Staal-Gerbe line was a big hit

Brothers Jordan and Eric Staal often play on the same line together, but there’s never been a consistent third. Head coach Bill Peters decided to try Nathan Gerbe out on that line, and it did a good job on both ends for the Hurricanes.

"We’ve floated a lot of guys through there on the right side. Haven’t played it together in awhile, but we knew that was something that we could always go back to," Peters said. "It made sense tonight knowing the way they use (Sidney) Crosby, we wanted to make sure we had Jordan or Victor (Rask) up against that line. We knew Sid was basically playing every second shift. I thought they did a good job both defensively and making them play in the d-zone also."

Eric Staal was aggressive early and often and had a ton of chances, finishing with five shots to lead the team. He and his brother also made sure to give Crosby all he could handle; Crosby’s had to play a lot more minutes with the shorthanded team around him, and they made him work.

"We wanted to have Jordan and I against Sid for the night, and I thought tonight, we had the better of him. We were on the puck. We were invested. We were skating well and limited their chances," Staal said. "They had some looks in the first but as the game went on, we got better."

2. Cam Ward returned after missing five games with injury and was back to normal

Anton Khudobin had started the last five games for the Hurricanes, the most consecutive starts by a Canes goaltender this season. But the reason for that is Ward had been dealing with a stomach virus that caused him to lose nearly 10 pounds, and he had to regain his strength.

A glove save he made on David Perron in the first period, though, made it seem as if he hadn’t missed any time.

"He made a big save on Perron. I don’t know what stage of the game it was, but the glove save on Perron was huge," Peters said. "I think we did the right thing by making sure that he was 100 percent healthy and could get his strength back before we played him, and he responded the way that we thought he would — with a real good effort."

The Hurricanes were out-shot 14-7 in the first, and Ward allowed an early goal — but once he kept seeing shot after shot, he settled in and looked visibly more comfortable.

"(Pittsburgh is) known to be a high-scoring team, and we know as of late they’ve been kind of hard-pressed to score goals," Ward said. "I thought tonight they shot a lot of pucks, but I was seeing it really well. Some nights you’re just feeling it, and today was one of those nights."

3. The Penguins were shorthanded, but the Hurricanes didn’t waste yet another opportunity to test themselves against one of the better teams in the league

The Penguins dressed just 19 players — Evgeny Malkin is still out, among others, and because of salary cap issues, the Penguins decided to go one man short rather than call anyone up.

The Hurricanes understood that this was a game they should probably win. The Penguins limped into it, going 1-5-1 in their last seven, and the Hurricanes played well in the final two periods against the Blackhawks after a slow start.

Yet Carolina didn’t just show up. They had energy and intensity, and played the way Peters wants them to. Even though they have nothing left to play for, really — nothing tangible.

"It’s been a struggle for a number of years to get back to a team that’s in the playoffs. We’re not again this year. It’s human nature, it’s disappointing, no question. But we’re professional athletes," Eric Staal said.

"We’re here to perform for our fans and the people who come to watch. We’re going to continue to work and compete. Bill (Peters) is not going to have it any other way, which is good. It’s the way it should be. We’re building a base here, we’re building a structure that’s going to bring us back to where we want to be. It’s going to continue the way it is now and into next season."

The Hurricanes were tough on defense and the aggressors on offense, forcing the action constantly, which is what Peters wants.

He knows they’re shorthanded, obviously — but he’s seen his team compete with this team, and other teams like it, before. He wants to see it more often.

"We played this team tough all year. I think we were 2-2 against them, some tight games, some late goals either way. We’ve been good against Pittsburgh," Peters said. "They’re a very good team, banged up a little bit right now. We took advantage of that to a certain degree tonight. That’s what you have to do, though. You have to play your game.

"I like the fact that the young guys continue to play. The young guys got better as the game went on, especially on the back end. I thought they were a little nervous in the beginning, to be honest with you, and then I thought they settled in and made plays."

Cam Ward — The Perron save was the highlight-worthy one, but overall he stopped 27 of the 29 shots he saw, even after being bombarded in the first with 14 shots when he was still a little rusty. Pretty solid first game back.

Brad Malone — He had been out of the lineup, but he had a pretty solid return — he was a team-high +3, and had two assists for a total of two points. He did all that without attempting a shot.

Eric Staal — Staal finished with a +2 on the night, taking a team-high five shots, scoring one goal and adding two assists for three points. And he set the tone. "(Eric) was huge tonight," Ward said of his longtime teammate. "It’s not easy when you’ve got 10 games left and you’re not really playing for much, but to have him step up and lead the way that he did tonight is really professional of him and the boys rallied around it."