RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Cam Ward didn't just take a goal away from Keith Ballard. He took a piece of his soul.
With just over six minutes remaining in the Hurricanes' 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks, Ward flung his glove across the gaping net to snare Ballard's point-blank shot. And he rolled on top of the rebound chance for good measure.
Coach Kirk Muller, with eyebrows raised and head cocked, had stronger words. "I was pretty amazed at that save. That was the play of the game, to me."
Drayson Bowman netted his first two goals of the season and the newly acquired Jaroslav Spacek tallied as well in the win, which leapfrogged the Canes over the New York Islanders, out of the Eastern Conference cellar. Tuomo Ruutu added a goal and an assist as Carolina unleashed a 41-shot barrage on Cory Schneider after managing only 19 shots the game before in Toronto.
Carolina's depleted lineup was the pre-game story. Leading scorer Jeff Skinner, top-scoring defenseman Joni Pitkanen, and blueliner Jay Harrison are all out indefinitely with concussions. But a spirited first-period fight, an improving power play, and contributions from youngsters like Bowman brushed concussion concerns aside for an evening as the Canes erased a 2-0 deficit to win their first game in nine tries when tied after two periods.
Kevin Bieksa, Mayson Raymond, and Alex Burrows scored for the defending Western Conference champion Canucks. Henrik Sedin's two assists put him over 700 points for his career.
The game was chippy early as the Canes seemed to skate angry after a tough-to-swallow overtime loss in Toronto on Tuesday. Chad LaRose and Jannik Hansen jostled before a face-off just before Bieksa tipped in a hard shot from Chris Higgins for the game's first goal at the 5:19 mark. Higgins raised his arms to celebrate the goal but immediately went after LaRose, who had bumped Ryan Kesler on his way to join the party.
When Alex Ponikarovsky crushed Dan Hamhuis in the corner just a couple of minutes later, giving the Canuck a cut next to his left eye and a nice elven-red cheek beneath it, the mercury approached the top of the thermometer.
After a shift, the top of the thermometer popped off.
Ballard and Jussi Jokinen facewashed each other after Schneider froze the puck. Then Ruutu dumped Manny Malhotra, and all five skaters paired off to fight as the ice was littered with sticks and gloves. Bryan Allen rocked Aaron Rome to draw the loudest cheers, putting the Canuck tough guy down with several hard rights and punching him in the back of the head once down before officials intervened.
It was, as they say in the hockey world, the spark that the team needed.
"Sometimes it's tough when you come off a long road trip and you haven't played at home in a while. You're not really sure how to play sometimes," Allen said of the melee. "We came out a little bit flat. Obviously they're a good team. It just gave us a little bit of a boost."
Three unsuccessful Carolina power plays followed before the period was over. But the man-advantage unit seemed to be building something as they moved the puck quickly around the horn to open chances in the high slot. Schneider tracked the puck well enough, padding shots to the corners.
Muller's mark on this team is already evident, not just on the power play but at even strength, too. The Canes were forcing more turnovers right upon entry to their zone and trying to chip quick counterattacks up the ice to use their team speed. There's a new causality to the Carolina mindset: effort leads to pressure, which leads to opponents' mistakes, which leads to scoring chances.
But at the midpoint of the game, a second goal by the visitors doused the Canes' spirit.
Higgins came in alone on a turnover, but Ward stymied him with a two-pad stack and slide for two saves. The goalie righted himself to stifle a Sedin shot from the blocker-side dot, but Sedin collected the rebound and darted behind the goal to feed Raymond in the low slot. Raymond fought off a stick-check by Eric Staal to beat Ward five-hole.
Ward had to stay sharp for the next several minutes as his teammates seemed slowed by the goal, but over the final four minutes of the period they would give him the support he has been lacking.
Bowman's first goal of the year came while skating with Anthony Stewart on Staal's wing. When Stewart flung the puck to the net out of a battle along the boards, Bowman tapped it past Schneider's right pad while Staal occupied defenders. The Canes were back in it.
Ward kept the momentum building with two brilliant saves in the next minute, sprawling to flick his left pad out to kick away a Sedin shot at the open net, then diving to glove down a sharp wrister from Raymond in the circle.
With less than a minute to go in the second period, Ruutu tied the game by finishing one of those high-pressure sequences that the Canes have not cashed in on enough this season. Collecting a rebound, Jokinen scampered to the high slot to feed Allen at the point. Ruutu tipped Allen's blast past Schneider's flailing glove.
The entire sequence would not have occurred without Tim Gleason deftly keeping the puck in the zone twice, batting a lofted clearing attempt down and dekeing to keep possession of the puck. It was the kind of little, key play that every Canes player made a couple of all night.
LaRose made one of those plays in the opening minute of the third period to give the Canes the lead.
Dogging Hamhuis down the boards after a dumped puck, LaRose harried the bigger man, somehow curling underneath him to take the puck and emerge up the boards with it. He found Bowman coming down the opposite wing, about as wide open as a player can be with other skaters on the ice. Bowman used the time and space to snipe a shot into the upper part of the goal. The Canes led 3-2.
Doomed to play on the fourth line under Paul Maurice, Bowman has been given a chance by Muller to show what he can do on the upper lines. Thursday, he made the most of it.
"He's been a productive guy in junior. Sometimes you just have to fit him in the right spot," said Muller. "He looked like he had good legs early and I just switched at the last minute and threw him out there with Staal. It's good chemistry."
"I know young kids have to earn their time and all that. But I think you have to put them into a spot where they can excel. If you just keep throwing them on the fourth line when they come up, they're just going to be a guy out of their element."
Bowman's goal energized the Canes, and they extended the lead on a 6-on-4 power play during a delayed call at the 6:12 mark. Spacek hammered a feed from Ruutu in the high slot that beat Schneider's blocker side high. Tim Brent started the play with a deft backhand pass between defenders along the boards to Ruutu in an open spot along the goal line.
The power play goal had been coming all game, it seemed. Although none of the earlier chances broke through, and Spacek's goal was technically a two-man-advantage score, the Canes' special teams are dramatically improved over where they were when Muller took over the squad.
Instead of firing point shots and hoping that they have enough net presence to pot a rebound, the Muller power play has developed a middle layer, locating a shooter in the high slot to give point men the option to shoot at the goal or pass to the middle. Add in the fact that Spacek moves his feet like a player a decade younger and you have a unit that looks like they know what they're doing, rather than one that hopes to get lucky.
"The patterns are getting a little more consistent," agreed the coach. "We're starting to get the personnel in the right spots."
"We've got guys who can shoot, and we have to take advantage of that. It's nice to have traffic in front, but I think we have the ability to make some plays and shoot pucks and get traffic rather than just going and jamming. I think that's a little bit more of a five-on-five philosophy for me."
Not three minutes after Spacek's goal, the Canucks cut the deficit to just a goal when Sedin stole a clearable puck in the Carolina zone, settled in an open spot just inside the blueline, and stood for several seconds with his stick cocked and ready to shoot, waiting for the right conditions in front of Ward to fire the puck into. He chose wisely, as Burrows banged a fat rebound past Ward's right pad.
The final 10 minutes were frantic, but the Canes fought for every bit of the ice. Jamie McBain nimbly took Sedin's space away behind the Canes' net on one sequence, forcing the Swede to lose the puck up the boards. Patrick Dwyer, at the end of a minute-plus Vancouver assault, ran the puck all the way down the Canuck boards into the corner before going off on a change in order to let his other four teammates change safely. After another such siege, McBain wisely iced the puck with three minutes left, and Muller used his timeout.
But no moment was more dramatic than Ward's outright theft of Ballard. Raymond lost a defender with a smooth spin move at the point, striding threateningly across the slot before throwing the puck back to Ballard all alone at the back side of the goal. Ballard wasn't merely alone—he was the only player on that half of the ice sheet, including Ward.
Raymond created the best chance down the stretch but missed the net on a hurried shot as the Canes defended bravely. Most of the final two minutes were spent in the Vancouver end after Dwyer tipped in a contested puck at center ice and the rest of the team flooded the enemy's zone.
In the final minute, Bieksa blatantly crosschecked Ruutu in the face in front of an official but drew no call. Carolina, however, didn't blink or retaliate. Staal had an empty-net possibility but couldn't handle a pass in the neutral zone.
Carolina takes their momentum to Miami next, visiting the Panthers on Sunday afternoon before hosting the Coyotes and Senators next week.