Carolina Hurricanes\' Cam Ward (30) unsuccessfully attempts to block the shot of Tampa Bay Lightning\'s Martin St. Louis during first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, April 2, 2008. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Karl B DeBlaker
RALEIGH, N.C. - After missing nearly two months with a broken leg, Chad LaRose is making up for lost time. His latest effort helped the Carolina Hurricanes stay one step ahead in the Southeast Division race.
LaRose scored three goals to lead Carolina past the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-2 on Wednesday night.
"Sitting out for so long was so tough, and I promised myself when I would get back that I'd be great every shift," LaRose said. "I'm trying to work at it."
Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu each had a goal and an assist, and Scott Walker also scored for Carolina, which broke a 1-all tie by scoring four straight goals. The Hurricanes lead Washington by two points in the Southeast race with one game left. The Capitals have two games remaining.
The Hurricanes could wrap up the division crown and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs by beating Florida on Friday in the regular-season finale or by having the Capitals lose one of their final two games in regulation.
"One more game to win, and we look forward to the challenge against Florida," Staal said. "We need to come out with that same energy and passion that we did tonight, and just take it to them."
Martin St. Louis had a goal and an assist, Jeff Halpern scored, and Mike Smith stopped 26 shots for last-place Tampa Bay, which lost its second straight. The Lightning allowed two power-play goals after being perfect on the penalty kill during their previous four games.
"It's been a tough year. We've had some personnel changes. We're trying to work together and get better as a team, but obviously, we know where we're at," St. Louis said. "We're trying to work for the future and trying to work hard to come together as a team."
Cam Ward turned aside 23 shots in his career-best 19th straight start, the longest streak by a Carolina goalie since Arturs Irbe started 26 consecutive games from February-April 2001. The Hurricanes snapped a two-game slide that put their once-secure playoff position in peril.
They frittered away most of the six-point division lead they had with six games left after the Capitals beat them in a shootout last week and then topped them 4-1 Tuesday to turn up the pressure inside the dressing room.
"Everybody knows there's a playoff spot on the line," Ruutu said. "There isn't going to be any better inspiration than that."
LaRose, who missed 21 games after breaking his left leg Feb. 5 at Nashville, has generated some offensive punch with four goals in two games against the Lightning.
He put Carolina ahead to stay with about 4 minutes left in the first. After Staal threw the puck on net, LaRose poked it past Smith to make it 2-1. The lead grew to two goals early in the second when Joe Corvo's slap shot clicked off Ruutu, and LaRose tapped in the rebound for his first two-goal game since scoring twice last season against New Jersey.
He completed his first NHL hat trick by taking a feed from Erik Cole and beating Smith with a backhand with 1:39 left.
"I thought he was dumping it down the ice, and it ended up popping right to me," LaRose said. "I had a step on the (defenceman), so I was shooting either way."
Staal got the Hurricanes started early, scoring 32 seconds into the game when he collected a loose puck in the defensive zone, brought it up the right boards and snapped the puck past Smith for his 37th goal. He scored in the opening minute for the second straight home game. His goal 42 seconds in set the tone for last week's 7-1 rout of Atlanta.
"Anytime you can get one early, it really livens the bench (and) gets the crowd going," Staal said. "It's just a real boost, and we wanted to attack them early in the game, get on them, shoot some pucks. ... It went by him and we just kept going on from there."
Staal has three goals and 12 assists in his last seven home games, and the Hurricanes are 6-0-1 in that span.
Tampa Bay briefly tied it midway through the period when St. Louis capped a pretty sequence with a power-play goal. He took a nifty pass from Jussi Jokinen and beat a diving Ward high stick side for his 25th goal.
"We had a tough start but I thought we hung in there and got a big goal on the power play to get back in the game," St. Louis said. "In the second period, we weren't able to put enough pucks on the net. ... It's tough to play from behind from the first shift."
Notes: C Vincent Lecavalier had two assists for the Lightning, and Cole and D Dennis Seidenberg each had two assists for the Hurricanes. ... Carolina scratched RW Justin Williams one night after he returned from a knee injury that cost him 43 games. He left Tuesday night's game at Washington early with a torso injury. ... Trevor Letowski's assist on LaRose's first goal was the 200th point of his NHL career. ... The teams split the season series 4-4.