RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—Tonight was the seemingly tall tale of how the second-best team in the NHL lost to the second-worst in front of 6,896 of the Hurricanes’ and Blackhawks’ most faithful Triangle fans…or at least, those with four wheel drive. Despite being outshot 41-24, Carolina won its fourth straight, 4-2, over a powerhouse Blackhawks team off Brandon Sutter’s go-ahead goal midway through the third period. Cam Ward played out of his mind to keep the Blackhawks off the board.
“It’s been a fun game,” Ward said. “Tonight we were playing against arguably against one of the best teams in the league and to be able to grab a win is a big confidence booster. We’ll be in good spirits going out west.”
When I say there was no one there to see it unfold, I really mean no one. Even the ‘Canes’ usual goal announcer didn’t brave the mess on I-40. Under seven thousand fans, approximately a third of what the building holds, made the trip while the rest will cash in their tickets at a later date with the approval of the ‘Canes’ brass.
Should they have canceled the game outright? It would have been costly and probably very difficult. Only once, at least as far as I can remember, has an NHL game been scrapped due to weather. That was in Denver, and no one was getting anywhere during that blizzard. The only unfortunate thing was that most North Carolinians were ill-equipped to get out and see a good West-East match-up and what proved to be an exciting game.
The fact that Carolina wasn’t down in the first ten minutes was an accomplishment in and of itself. The Blackhawks were up on the best team in the league, the San Jose Sharks 3-0 Thursday night. However, the Sharks came back to tie it and the ‘Hawks had to close it out in overtime, so perhaps a bit of that sloppiness carried over. In addition, Carolina has jumped out to uncharacteristically early leads in its last several games – all wins. Fancy that.
The first period included some excellent rebound control by Cam Ward and his defensemen even though their team was being out chanced. Ward stretched to deny Chicago from close in and Joni Pitkanen played some smart, legal defense stopped John Madden on a partial two-on-one.
With nine left in the period and the ‘Canes swarming, Sergei Samsonov batted in a Tom Kostopoulos rebound to put Carolina ahead going into the period break. It seems like ages ago that Samsonov was plucked off waivers from the Blackhawks, no? It was his third goal in as many games.
The Chicago contingent here in Raleigh – as in, the transplants who would call an eight inch snow storm a “dusting” and had no problem getting here tonight – were louder than I would have thought possible. Without the goal horn and music accompanying the ‘Canes’ fans cheering, I would say they were probably about even with the home crowd in terms of decibels. They had reason to yell when Marion Hossa nudged a puck under Ward for the Blackhawks and a former ‘Cane, Andrew Ladd, extracted a bit of revenge of his own with the secondary assist. This came after an extended stretch of Blackhawk control in front of Ward.
“I’ll probably be hearing about that second goal from Ladder, but I guess we’ve got bragging rights because of the win,” Ward said.
Eric Staal faked a shot and passed cross ice to Jokinen. Christobal Huet looked to have flung himself across the ice and smothered it, but Staal and Ray Whitney emphatically pointed to the goal. Apparently they have trustworthy faces because the referee sided with them even though he had nowhere near a good angle. A video replay confirmed Jokinen’s marker, which puts him second in team scoring. Andrew Alberts had the secondary on both ‘Canes goals.
“We would have liked to have played this well in October and December,” Jokinen, who tied his personal best for goals, set during his rookie season with Dallas, said. “But that’s passed. We’re concentrating on winning as many games as we can.”
Just after John Forslund finished telling the Carolina crowd all about Cam Ward’s accomplishments, Ward let in a bit of a softy short side. Ladd tied the game just after a Niclas Wallin penalty expired.
Maybe it was “prodigal son” Andrew Ladd having so much fun at his drafting team’s expense. Whatever it was, something made Carolina angry. Brandon Sutter deflected a Chad LaRose shot past Huet in a pretty play that developed remarkably quickly. Before that goal was even announced, Matt Cullen broke the game wide open, as he so often does, with another deflection off a Kostopoulos shot.
Wallin took another penalty with two minutes left, giving Chicago a lengthy 6-on-4 and a golden opportunity to tie it up. The ‘Canes saw six empty netter opportunities go wide and Ward make a spectacular save on Patrick Kane, Chicago’s leader in almost every statistical category, including goals and points. Kane was left sitting on the door step for several dangerous moments.
“That was completely high end, especially when you factor in how much time he had,” Mom said. “We’re still interrogating our players as to why we would leave that man alone, but that shows how much confidence our players have in Cam Ward.”
Most of our last recap was spent marveling at how much this team as improved and what the heck caused the change. As with the losing streak, there are too many complicated explanations to be able to sum it up neatly. It’s as though these are two completely different teams. The January ‘Canes are the more attractive and confident older brother of the October/November/December ‘Canes…we’ll see if it lasts. It will be interesting to see what Jim Rutherford chooses to do in terms of personnel changes and what impact, if any, the Olympic break will have on this team.
Carolina will hit the road for a four-game road swing this week before heading home for three. Then, of course, is that NHL Olympic break, which will be more restful for some than others. The Edmonton Oilers, the only team in the league worse than the Hurricanes, are next up on the docket. The game starts Monday at 9:30 p.m.