FSN SOUTH (TV)—In a tightly checked game, it’s important to stay patient, stay focused, and hope that your star players can make plays that show up on the scoreboard.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias scored pretty goals, and Brian Rolston added one of the lunch pail variety, in a listless game that makes for about as thrilling a read as it was to watch. Sergei Samsonov scored for Carolina, and Tuomo Ruutu celebrated his birthday with a meaningless goal with five seconds remaining.
This was a letdown game for the Canes, who looked like they’d had a lot more than two off-days since their last game, an emotional regulation win in Atlanta in the last moments of Sunday afternoon’s divisional test.
Eric Staal’s line cycled the puck well early—often dominating the New Jersey zone for large chunks of time—but failed to generate chances as the Devils effectively collapsed in front of Johan Hedberg, who played for an injured Martin Brodeur.
However, little else occurred in a first period that saw only ten shots combined between the teams. Troy Bodie and Mark Fraser paired off for a heavyweight tussle just a pair of minutes in, but neither club found an emotional lift from it. Let’s face it: New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire’s brand of hockey can be a lot like a business meeting. Of course, he just won his 600th career game, so there’s something to be said for his particular brand of defense-first efficiency.
Kovalchuk authored the game’s first score early in the second period with the kind of stellar individual play that no Hurricane seemed to have in him on the night. Taking the puck along the Carolina goal line, the Russian sniper sauntered all the way out to the blueline, fronted ably by Joe Corvo. Kovalchuk cut back sharply, darting to the dot as Corvo desperately tried to react. But Kovalchuk cut back again in the circle, losing the hapless Corvo and flinging a shot past a screened Cam Ward.
Kovalchuk, who drew boos early in the season for not producing despite being given the richest contract in league history over the summer, knelt and scrubbed the ice with the palm of his hand as he skated away to deserved chants of “Kovy! Kovy!”
The goal drew a rise out of the Canes, but Hedberg got a pad in front of a good shot from Jerome Samson from the side of the net. Soon after that, Erik Cole barged into the slot but waited too long before shooting. Hedberg made a positional save and that was that.
With two seconds remaining in the period, and players already veering toward the locker room tunnels, the officials called coincidental penalties on Colin White (hooking) and Jussi Jokinen (diving) that seemed unimportant at the time.
But, skating four-on-four to start the third period, the Devils scored two quick goals to put the game away. After Hedberg made a nice save at one end, Anssi Salmela carried the puck straight up center ice and into the Carolina zone. He moved it to Elias on the wing who hard shot came off Ward’s chest into the high slot. Rolston, trailing the play, tucked it home below Ward’s glove before the goaltender could recover.
After Ward left a similar rebound of a Salmela shot in the crease to give Vladimir Zharkov a good chance, Rolston reciprocated Elias’ assist on another high-skill goal that the Canes would be well advised to emulate going forward.
Just as White and Jokinen were stepping out of the sin bins, Rolston curled back from the Canes’ blueline into center ice. The Carolina defense relaxed for an instant, and Rolston flung a pass along the red line to Elias in stride on the opposite wing. Elias pushed down the wing, slammed on the breaks to veer into the slot and lose the defender, and shot behind a moving Ward.
Jiri Tlusty made some good moves behind the net to find Samsonov out front midway through the period to end the shutout, but Hedberg and the disciplined New Jersey team defense stifled the Canes until Ruutu’s marker in the final seconds.
"It was a lack of emotion," Ruutu said. "We only played the last ten minutes, after we scored that first goal."
Carolina has to find a way to start games and periods with some jump. And their star players have to make more creative plays. Thus endeth the road trip.
The Canes return home on Friday night to host the Flyers and to retire Rod Brind’Amour’s jersey. Special ceremonies begin at the usual game time of 7pm; the puck drop is at 8pm.