RBC Center/ Raleigh—And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to… Jaroslav Spacek for his part in the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night.
Spacek’s brilliant performance as an almost-fatally wounded defenseman—lying face-down on the ice, his head buried in his hands, perhaps even crying “Why? Why?” a la Nancy Kerrigan—milked a five-minute major boarding penalty to Erik Cole out of the sympathetic officials, and spoiled a tightly skated game as well as stalwart efforts by Cam Ward in his 300th game with the Hurricanes and Chad LaRose, who broke a 15-game goal drought.
Each team had notched a goal early in the period, and the new line of Cole, Eric Staal and Chad LaRose took a draw in the Habs’ zone. A beat before the official dropped the puck, Staal glanced over his shoulder at Cole as if to say “Go.” Cole bolted at the goal while the puck was still in the air. Staal chopped the puck forward and it leapt toward the crease. Cole batted it out of the air on net, and tucked the rebound beneath netminder Carey Price before most other players had reacted. It was the kind of bull-rush from Cole that Montreal fans have seen in their nightmares for years.
Leading 2-1 despite being outshot by about the same margin had to feel good for Carolina, but that feeling only lingered for nine seconds. After the ensuing center-ice face off, Spacek moved the puck up the boards with Cole in pursuit. Cole checked him solidly from behind and Spacek went face-first into the low boards in front of the benches. He lay motionless on the ice, amid a forest of skates, as the trainer knelt beside him.
“Terrible play on my part. We’re not even supposed to be finishing our hits there,” Cole said after the game. The boarding penalty was so obvious that Spacek’s teammates didn’t even bother with the obligatory vengeful scrum around Cole.
Instead, they waited for the officials’ verdict—would it be a minor or major penalty? As soon as the “5:00” went up next to Cole’s number on the scoreboard, Spacek hopped up like a kid on Christmas morning and took his place on the bench. Bravo.
Major penalties are hard to kill, particularly in the second period when it’s more difficult to change players because your team’s bench is not in your defensive zone. Even when the Canes were able to ice the puck, they had to frantically change in order to counter Montreal’s speed. After some patient perimeter passing, Tomas Plekanec clacked a pass in off Andrei Kostitsyn’s stick. Kostitsyn, who had been a healthy scratch in the Habs’ previous game, had muscled Joe Corvo out of the crease.
If that goal didn’t sting enough, the next one did, giving Montreal the lead it wouldn’t relinquish with a minute left in the period. Montreal runs an umbrella power play—a pentagonal formation not unlike the basketball alignment with a point guard, two guards to the sides, and two forwards. After a hypnotic display of triangular passing atop the formation, Alexandre Picard potted a slapshot off the post from the point. The miraculously rejuvenated Spacek received the secondary assist on the play.
“I think it’s a penalty in the league. I don’t feel it’s a five,” Coach Paul Maurice ruminated on the boarding major after the game. “It’s like arresting a telephone pole after a drunk driver hits it. I understand why there’s an issue here but there’s no way that Spacek doesn’t know that hit’s coming because Cole’s chasing him up the ice. There’s no invitation—dear sir, I’m going to hit you. Would you please mind keeping your shoulders square to me so that I don’t get a five-minute penalty?”
The third period felt like a playoff game as the Hurricanes came in waves into the Montreal zone. On an early power play, the Canes chose to attack on the rush instead of setting up in Montreal ice. Unfortunately, they found the shin pads of defensemen or Price’s glove on each scoring chance.
Five minutes in, Joni Pitkanen authored his most inspiring shift of the season, knocking down a Hab forward at center ice, taking the puck, and skating a complete circle through the Montreal zone. But the Canadiens are a great skating team. Rarely out of position, their legs always churning, they give no quarter at even strength.
To punctuate the Hurricanes’ frustration, LaRose went off for tripping Brian Gionta as Carolina was on the verge of pulling Ward for the extra attacker with a couple of minutes left. Thus, the finish was not as frantic as they would have liked it to be. After this loss, and the 5-1 drubbing in Tampa this week, the Canes will have visions of goalie gloves and faceoff losses in their heads this holiday break, rather than sugarplums and their recent four-game win streak.