RALEIGH, N.C. — If there was any nervousness among the Carolina Hurricanes over their shrinking lead in the Southeast Division, it was gone less than a minute into Friday’s game.
Eric Staal scored on the first of his career-high 12 shots on goal 42 seconds into the game and Jeff Hamilton added the first of five power-play goals six minutes later to send the Canes on their way to a 7-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
Staal had three points, Hamilton and Tuomo Ruutu each scored twice and Cam Ward stopped 25 shots for the win as the Canes restored their four-point division lead on the Washington Capitals with just four games left in the regular season.
"Everyone in this room knew we needed to have it," Staal said. "We came out with that fire and energy to get a win. It was a big win and we’ll look forward to tomorrow."
The Canes had everything on the line, with the Capitals creeping within two points in the race for the division title, and the Thrashers had nothing to gain, already eliminated from playoff contention, coming off their first win in six games the night before.
That made it a must-win for the Canes, with the imperative to put their stamp on the game early.
This they did, Staal scoring 42 seconds into the game off an Erik Cole rebound before Joe Corvo caught the Thrashers in a line change on a Carolina power play and fed Hamilton to make it 2-0 only six minutes and change into the game.
The Canes kept the pressure on, outshooting Atlanta 35-26 as Corvo added his seventh goal in 19 games with the Hurricanes on a second-period two-man advantage, his second point of the night, and Ruutu scored his first goals since March 1.
The Canes tied a franchise record set in November 2002 against the Detroit Red Wings by going 5-for-11 on the power play, with four of the goals, two each, coming from Ruutu and Hamilton.
"It was just good movement, a lot of shots, attacking the net, great plays by a couple guys," Staal said. "(Ruutu) and (Hamilton) stepped up with a couple nice goals, and we’ll take "em."
They gave up a short-handed goal in the second but picked up one of their own in the third when Chad LaRose, playing for the first time in almost two months, set up Trevor Letowski’s third goal in the past four games.
Staal’s goal and two assists gave him his 11th multiple-point effort in the past 19 games, while his 12 shots were the most since the team moved to North Carolina in 1997. (The franchise record is unknown.)
And he did it despite playing sparingly in the third period as Laviolette rested Staal, Cole and Sergei Samsonov in preparation for Saturday night’s game at the Tampa Bay Lightning. That trio played a combined 8:55 in the third, just slightly more than Ryan Bayda, who played 6:58 in the third.
That game looms large, because a win there and a regulation win in Washington on Tuesday would assure the Canes the division title no matter what the Capitals do otherwise — just as the Canes’ play in the first 10 minutes assured them a win, no matter what happened afterward.
"The first couple minutes were big, so big for us," Ruutu said. "We talked about it before the game. We had to come out and come hard, and we came — that was the biggest thing in the game."