With Hurricanes captain Eric Staal leaving Saturday’s game against the New York Islanders due to injury, the team was likely to be a forward short for Sunday’s home game against the Nashville Predators. Staal’s ailment continues a recent stretch of injuries to hit the team’s forward ranks, as Charlotte’s Zach Boychuk and Brett Sutter had already joined the NHL club since play resumed following the holiday break to fill in for Jiri Tlusty and Riley Nash, respectively.
With 14 points (3g, 11a) in his last 11 games since Dec. 10, Palushaj has passed Boychuk for the Checkers’ point lead with 28 in 34 games. He also leads the team with 19 assists, at least six more than any other player, and ranks in the AHL’s top 20 in both categories. He has scored at least one point in nine of his last 11 games, including point streaks of four and five games.
Though Palushaj’s five-game streak (2g, 6a) ended Friday, he remained a scoring threat as his six shots on goal in that game were the most on the team. His 96 total shots this season tie Chris Terry for the team lead.
Prior to the beginning of his hot streak on Dec. 10, Palushaj had scored just six points in his previous 14 games, less than expected for a player who has produced at close to a point-per-game pace in the past.
“When points aren’t coming you’re a little frustrated, but it’s a team game,” said Palushaj on Thursday, prior to a pair of home games against the Texas Stars. “You want individual success, but individual success for me will obviously bring team success. I wasn’t helping the team win and that’s my job – to help the team win games.”
He’s certainly been doing that in recent weeks.
“He’s simplifying his game,” coach Jeff Daniels said Thursday. “I don’t think he’s trying to do less in a sense, but before he was trying to do too much with that extra move or that extra pass. Now he’s shooting the puck more and he’s going to the net, and as a result he’s playing his best hockey right now.
“Right from day one, his commitment to the way he needs to work has always been there. He’s been really driven, very focused and is working extremely hard.”
Meshing well on a line with Nicolas Blanchard and Brody Sutter has also helped.
“I’ve found some chemistry with those guys and we’re playing hard, we’re getting some bounces and are creating a lot of chances through our work ethic,” said Palushaj. “With those two guys working hard and being strong defensively, it also allows me to be a little more skilled in the offensive zone.”
Though Sunday would mark Palushaj’s first NHL game of the season, he’s no stranger to the league with 66 total games played over the course of the last three seasons. After starting last season with Hamilton during the NHL’s lockout, he played the remainder of the season with the Colorado Avalanche, scoring nine points (2g, 7a) in 25 games.
Though the Hurricanes had not issued an immediate update on Staal’s condition at the time of the recall, the loss of Palushaj won’t necessarily leave the Checkers short for their next game. The team is off until starting a two-game road trip in Oklahoma City on Friday, the only two games it will play over a 13-day span following Friday’s 4-3 win over Texas.