While the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens finished at the bottom of their respective divisions last season, both find themselves in first with the midway point approaching.
The Southeast-leading Hurricanes look to win five straight for the first time in three years Thursday night as they host the Canadiens, who try to bounce back from their first regulation loss in almost a month.
Though Carolina (13-8-1) suffered a big blow when Cam Ward sprained his MCL during Sunday's 3-2 win at Florida, Justin Peters - in his season debut - stepped up to make 37 saves in Tuesday's 4-3 victory over Buffalo. Peters, recalled from Charlotte a day earlier, could play a key role going forward as the backup to Dan Ellis with Ward expected to miss six to eight weeks.
"Every day in the NHL is awesome," said Peters, who was 22-12-1 with a 2.29 goals-against average and two shutouts in the AHL. "You watch Cam Ward play and he's so calm and cool back there, I just try and learn from guys like him watching them on TV. His demeanor back there really feeds a lot to the bench."
Alexander Semin had a goal and two assists Tuesday while captain Eric Staal had a season-high three assists for the Hurricanes, who haven't won five in a row since a seven-game run Feb. 5-March 4, 2010. Staal leads the team with 28 points, nine of which have come during the current four-game win streak.
Carolina is 13-3-1 when Staal records at least one point compared to 0-5-0 when he doesn't. He has eight goals and eight assists in 10 home games.
"Eric's made a huge commitment to playing the game the right way without the puck," coach Kirk Muller told the team's official website. "I think he has a lot of pride in that. He's gone from a bit of an offensive guy to a two-way centerman. It's been a big part of our group having success."
Staal, though, is pointless in four of his last five matchups with Montreal (14-5-4), including a 3-0 road loss Feb. 18 as the Hurricanes had a season-low 19 shots.
The Eastern Conference-leading Canadiens had strung together an 8-0-3 run before a 6-3 road loss to the New York Islanders on Tuesday. Michael Ryder tallied a career high-tying three assists for the second time in five games, but Carey Price stopped just 18 of 23 shots.
"We can't win them all, and we just went 11 games without losing in regulation," coach Michel Therrien told the team's official website. "The guys played with intensity, they worked hard, the results just didn't work out for us."
It was the first regulation defeat since Feb. 9 and just the second on the road all season for the Canadiens, who led 1-0 after 20 minutes but allowed three goals in each of the last two periods.
"We tried to put the puck on the net as much as we could, but we didn't always get the bounces and that just happens sometimes," said Tomas Plekanec, who scored for a second straight game and has a team-high 10 goals. "It's never a good feeling when you lose a game, whether it's at the end of a streak or not. A loss is a loss."
Plekanec has 13 points in the last nine meetings with Carolina as the Canadiens have gone 6-2-1.
Price has seen his GAA rise to 2.35 after allowing 12 goals over two starts this month. Despite Tuesday's effort, Price is 5-1-1 with a 1.81 GAA over seven road contests.