With the Carolina Hurricanes approaching the 20-game mark, some areas of their game remained worrisome.
The power play wasn’t producing.
The penalty killing wasn’t as airtight as it has been in recent years.
Finally, the Canes’ goaltenders, Scott Darling and Cam Ward, weren’t consistent enough in their play, making it a game-to-game question of how good – or not so good – the Canes would be in net.
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But there are signs things are turning – for the Canes, in the right direction. In a 4-2 victory Sunday over the New York Islanders at PNC Arena, all three came together, leaving Canes coach Bill Peters smiling after the game and the locker room a confident place.
The Canes (9-6-4) scored twice on the power play – by Sebastian Aho early in the game and later Teuvo Teravainen, who had two goals and an assist. Still 30th in the NHL on the power play before Sunday, the Canes now have four power-play goals in the past three games.
“It’s been a little struggle and finally it’s paying off for a little bit,” Teravainen said.
Peters made some personnel changes, pulling center Victor Rask and defenseman Noah Hanifin off the power-play units. On Sunday, Rask was a healthy scratch.
The Canes led the NHL in fewest penalties before Sunday but had seven penalties called against the Islanders. Holding, tripping, high-sticking … the Isles and their top-end talent can force teams to do those things.
But the Islanders scored on just one power play, in the third period with the Canes leading 4-1. John Tavares, who always seems to score against the Canes, did it again for his 15th goal of the season.
On the Isles’ other six power plays, the Canes got sticks on pucks and Ward made some scrambling stops in the crease. Slavin and defenseman Brett Pesce each had 9:43 of shorthanded time, which might be a career high for both, and Slavin blocked seven shots.
With the Isles on the power play in the final moments of the second period, Tavares lined up a slap shot only to have Slavin get the block. Tavares retrieved the puck and tried again, but Slavin was there again.
“But it starts with ‘Wardo’ in net,” Slavin said. “He played a heck of a game and had some huge saves to make us as successful as we were.”
Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey was an underrated penalty killer, and the Canes’ P.K. took a dip last season when Hainsey and Viktor Stalberg, another savvy penalty killer, were traded around the NHL trade deadline.
Assistant coach Steve Smith, who handles the penalty killing, has filtered in some different faces this season such as forward Marcus Kruger, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and a rookie defenseman, Haydn Fleury. It has taken some time to mesh.
One of the biggest questions coming into the season was whether Darling was prepared to be a No. 1 goaltender for the first time and how Ward, long the Canes’ franchise goalie, would accept a lesser role.
Darling has had good games and bad, including the 6-4 loss to the Islanders on Thursday in Brooklyn. But he responded with a strong, determined effort Saturday as the Canes won 3-1 at Buffalo, and Ward was at his best Sunday in the second half of the back-to-back.
Ward was playing his first game since Nov. 10 against Columbus – a 3-1 road win – but was efficient with his movement and calm in net.
“He’s dialed in,” Peters said. “He’s had some games where he has been so sharp with his stick down around the blue paint. And mentally sharp. Physically, he’s been excellent.
“Prior to the weekend he said, ‘Whenever you call my number, I’m ready to play.’ I give him a lot of credit the way he’s handled the situation. We need both of them.”