Irbe, 'Canes Blank Blackhawks

Arturs Irbe was sitting around in early September wondering if he would even be in the NHL this season. Almost two months later, he's the hottest goaltender in the league.

Sami Kapanen returned from a knee injury to score in his fourth straight game and Irbe got his 14th career shutout as the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 Wednesday night.

"At some point in September I wasn't really sure if somebody was going to go after me," said the veteran Irbe, who is from Latvia. "It was a long summer. There were some jobs available and no one was making a real commitment to sign me."

"Things happen, you never know which way things are going to go. Life is unpredictable."

Irbe was eventually signed to Carolina by general manager and former NHL goalie Jim Rutherford to back up Trevor Kidd. But after Kidd's slow start, Irbe has been the key man in net for the Hurricanes.

"When we signed him Jim Rutherford said to me, `Hey, this guy can play goal,"' said coach Paul Maurice. "He said right from day one that this guy is a big-league goaltender. He turned out to be exactly right."

"I don't think we've put him in a position where he's had to stand on his head, but he's making a lot of these saves look a lot easier than they actually are."

After a franchise-worst 1-7-2 start a season ago, the Hurricanes are 3-2-3 after eight games.

Kapanen, who sat out Sunday's 3-2 home loss against Los Angeles with a bruised knee, scored the game-winner with 5:48 left in the second period on a perfect feed from Ron Francis, who had knocked Christian Laflamme off the puck behind Chicago goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick.

Francis scored an empty-net goal with 19.9 seconds left.

This was the first game Maurice had Kapanen and Gary Roberts paired with Francis in an attempt to create more scoring chances.

Irbe entered the game leading the NHL in goals-against average at 1.01 and faced 21 shots for his first shutout of the season.

"I was stuck on 13 (shutouts) for almost half a year so I had to make sure I got off of that," said Irbe, who has surrendered five goals in six games, improving his record to 3-0-2.

Chicago coach Dirk Graham was unhappy his team didn't take the body more.

"We're supposed to be a physical team," Graham said. "You have guys come into the rink and they want to play a fancy game and nothing else without being physical. They're not going to play."

"We go through this every week or so. We continue to do the same thing, we react to other teams."

The Blackhawks received a scare in the first period when leading goal-scorer Tony Amonte was checked head-first into the boards by Carolina defenseman Glen Wesley. Amonte was on the ice for several minutes, but left under his own power and didn't miss a shift.

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