RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—I recall one of many awkward Thanksgivings years ago, crowded into a living room with heavy-breathing relatives, a plate of tepid green bean casserole balanced on my knees, mentally noting that the Lions game wasn't for another hour. Instead we were all going to talk.
Last night, as the Hurricanes lost 3-2 to their division rivals the Washington Capitals, creeping below .500 as well as the playoff cut line, I sorted the facts of the game according to the three stars of that dusty, brutal, permanently watchable western.
The Good: Some things are bigger than hockey. At about 6:30 Wednesday morning, Nolan Kennedy Ward came into the world. Starting goaltender Cam Ward and his wife welcomed their first child around sunrise, so the sleep-deprived stopper sat out the game in favor of Justin Peters.
Peters spent much of the first two periods jumping around like it was he who had just become a dad. There's a line between aggressive goaltending, which is important against an offensively gifted team like the Capitals, and simply overplaying the puck. Peters didn't come back across that line until Washington brought a 2-0 lead onto the ice for the third period. And yet, sliding well out into the slot and pulling off posts early on wraparounds, Peters somehow kept the Canes in the game.
Also good in this game was Washington winger Nicklas Backstrom, who scored those two goals. Overshadowed by linemate Alex Ovechkin and other flashy teammates like Alexander Semin and Mike Green, Backstrom is that special skill player who goes about his work with an understated consistency.
Also netting a pair in Washington's visit earlier this season, Backstrom skated hard to the net and jammed a rebound beneath Peters, who opened his pads to look for the puck after getting in front of an Ovechkin shot, for his first goal about 13 minutes into the game. Then, just a minute into the second period, Backstrom walked from the wall straight across the ice, waited for defenseman Tim Gleason to lunge himself out of position before he brought the puck across to his forehand, and flicked a shot off the far crossbar and in before Peters could react.
The Bad: The aforementioned Ovechkin played the villain this night. Although he failed to score a goal for his fifth straight game, he crossed himself off coach Bruce Boudreau's naughty list by assisting on all three goals, registering 10 shots on Peters, and missing the net with 10 more. Only the night before, after a 5-0 loss in New Jersey, the gap-toothed star was yukking it up with other Russian players on the Devils in the locker room, interrupting his coach's press conference. But Ovechkin matured overnight to play a complete game in Raleigh.
Troy Bodie and Matt Bradley combined the ugly with the beautiful in an impressive fight, hockey's version of the sublime. In just his second game as a Cane, Bodie bloodied Bradley midway through the first. Bradley will doubtless be excusing himself from the family table to change butterfly bandages on his eyebrow.
The Ugly: After the Canes climbed back into the tilt with a Sergei Samsonov tip-in of a Joni Pitkanen slap-pass and an Eric Staal chip shot from the post after Jeff Skinner had walked the puck out front on a power play to tie it, Peters handed the game-winning goal to the Caps with eight minutes left.
With Skinner having hardly sat down in the penalty box for breaking Karl Alzner's stick with a slash behind the Washington goal, the faceoff skittered to Peters, who tried to clear the puck up the middle of the ice by himself. Instead, it went straight to Ovechkin, who pushed a perfect pass to Brooks Laich in the slot. Laich deflected it past Peters, who hadn't reset from his errant clear attempt.
"I fanned on my shot. I should have just took a quick whistle," noted Peters, who finished with 30 saves. Coach Paul Maurice agreed: "Freeze it or give it to the D, one of the two. But he's a competitive man." The play underscored the Canes' inferiority complex when it comes to the faceoff circle, where Carolina is currently worst in the league. Their 44 percent success rate versus Washington represented a marginal improvement.
The Canes aren't afforded time to digest their turkey dinners, as they practice Thanksgiving day and hop an afternoon flight to Boston to face the Bruins during the day on Friday. But the quick turnaround should help them forget the ugliness of once again falling short of the Capitals.