RBC CENTER—The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning visited, they thumped the Carolina Hurricanes to open the season. Tuesday night, the Canes put that behind them.
Behind two goals each from Jeff Skinner and Chad LaRose, and 28 saves by Cam Ward—many on an extended Tampa two-man advantage—the Hurricanes proved the more formidable meteorological phenomenon, 4-2.
Although it took a while for the game to warm up, Carolina carried play throughout the first, outshooting Tampa 19-7 in the first 20 minutes. Tampa, however, scored the first goal.
After a Canes power play threatened but didn't score, Ryan Malone battled two Carolina defenders in the corner and won the puck. He hit Marc-Andre Bergeron at the top of the zone. Bergeron drifted laterally until a shooting lane opened and pounded a shot that Ward kicked out. But the rebound came right to Purcell's stick and he buried it with just under five minutes left.
Eric Staal, who has been tagged as "struggling," summoned a forceful drive to the net a minute later, nearly chopping a backhand over Roloson's leg. That leg, however, found Staal's feet as well as the puck, and the tripping call gave the Canes their second man-advantage.
Carolina didn't squander this one. Undaunted after referees decided not to call a delay of game penalty when Victor Hedman very probably cleared the puck straight over the glass early in the advantage, the second unit had something cooking in the corner to Roloson’s right. First, Tomas Kaberle threw a diagonal pass to Jay Harrison at the point for a hard wrist shot which Roloson softened into the slot. The puck cycled back into the corner and Ponikarovsky got control in a crowd. He zipped an identical pass to the point and this time Harrison one-timed it. The puck crawled through Roloson and stopped a few inches short of the goal line, but Chad LaRose leapt over the goalie’s pad to chop it home with just two seconds left in the advantage and 1:33 left in the period.
The difference between Harrison settling the puck for his first shot and simply one-timing the second was not lost on the Canes, who seemed to a man to be getting shots off sooner.
The intermission didn't cool the home team. It took just one shift to take a lead they'd never relinquish.
Joni Pitkanen, who skated hard all night, kicked a loose puck along the red line to Skinner's stick. With Victor Hedman on his back, and teammates Jamie McBain and Jussi Jokinen to either side, Skinner navigated down the crowded slot and slung the puck past Roloson's blocker just 22 seconds into the second.
"I just saw an opening, I think," Skinner explained afterwards. "On a left shot it's easier to shoot away from your body and keep the puck outside. I didn't see Bainer on the right side, but I heard him. And I saw their D-man [Eric Brewer]. So I sort of sagged toward the middle, and it opened up a lane, and I shot it."
The offense gave Carolina the lead, and the defense had to make as spectacular a play to keep it. Around the five-minute mark, LaRose and Staal were called for simultaneous penalties, giving Tampa a full two minutes of 5-on-3 play. Coach Paul Maurice skated out Brandon Sutter, Tim Gleason, and Bryan Allen to defend, and they almost logged the entire penalty kill.
Ward stopped three excellent shots from Vincent Lecavalier, and several others from all areas of the ice, as the penalty killers kept the ice clear enough for the goaltender to see the puck movement and get into save position early. When Ward sticked away Lecavalier's point-blank shovel shot with a few seconds left, the crowd roared. The Canes had survived.
Tampa kept up the pressure, however. Around the midpoint of the game, Steve Downie skated his best shift of the night all over the Carolina zone—buzzing, hitting, shooting, and twice setting up one-timers from the point—but it would come to nought. Or rather, it would come to one, the other way.
His stick almost vertical, Brewer wound up to gun Downie’s touch pass from out of the corner. But he caught the ice before the puck, and the blade of Brewer’s stick exploded, soaring in a rainbow arc to crash against the boards in the far corner. The puck, however, barely scooted. Skinner instantly collected it and darted up ice while Brewer frantically reversed.
Curling in the high zone, Skinner found a trailing Jokinen cruising between the circles with Hedman draped all over him. But Jokinen had position on the big defender. He skated toward the corner to draw Roloson to one side of the net and flung a pass past the stickless Brewer in the slot for Skinner to bang home for a 3-1 lead. Roloson managed only a halfhearted flail. Skinner’s second of the period and sixth of the season gives the sophomore twelve points in as many games.
Carolina has been haunted by sluggish changes in second periods throughout the campaign, and it nearly cost them in its waning minutes on this night. Although Martin St. Louis has made a living over the years sneaking up the far boards during a change, it was Lecavalier receiving a stretch pass to come in alone down the right wing. The Tampa captain’s monster slapshot from the circle powered through Ward’s glove but bounced straight back off the far post. It stopped in the blue ice behind the goalie, who spotted it over his left shoulder in time to smother the puck before skaters closed on him.
Lecavalier will likely see Ward in his sleep. Shotless in the first period, the scorer tested Ward seven times in the remainder of the game. No goals though.
The Lecavalier bomb sparked a late surge by the visitors, but Allen’s subtle baiting of Downie delayed the Tampa agitator enough that he couldn’t clear the Carolina zone as his teammates collected a turnover in the neutral zone and headed in with numbers. The period ended without further event.
Tampa coach Guy Boucher put his eggs in one basket throughout the third period to try to claw back into the game. Steven Stamkos took Lecavalier’s left wing with St. Louis on the right throughout the frame.
On the night after Halloween, Carolina had a scare a minute into the period as Jokinen came up lame after a draw. The Finn tripped over Ryan Shannon and fell onto his back with his leg beneath the Tampa player. Jokinen managed to skate off with what looked like a possibly hyperextended knee and didn’t return. Maurice, however, was optimistic after the game, noting that Jokinen was walking around in the locker room and would likely be day-to-day, pending a Wednesday scan. [Note: Drayson Bowman was recalled from Charlotte on Wednesday. No news yet on Jokinen's status or injury other than the standard "lower body" announcement.]
Tim Brent took Jokinen’s place between Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu.
The big Tampa line pressed in the early stages of the third. Although Pitkanen sent St. Louis tumbling with a clean, hard check along the boards, the winger managed to transfer some of the momentum of the check into his stick, whipping a pass into the slot that Lecavalier flipped across the goalmouth. Ward resisted gloving it as it went wide to the vacant corner.
Then Tomas Kaberle—who finds himself toward the bottom of the depth chart these days—had a moment of indecision with the puck in the corner, leading to two good chances for Stamkos at Ward’s stick-side post, five minutes in. The goalie held his ground, however, with his elbow jammed down hard into his right pad.
Skinner nearly got Kaberle onto the score sheet at the midpoint of the period. Tied up nicely in the high circle, he spotted the defender in one-timer position just inside the Tampa blue line, and kicked a perfect pass into the wheelhouse. Kaberle’s shot-pass outside the far post was deflected just wide by Ruutu before a screened Roloson could locate the puck.
Tampa kept working, and it paid off with 5:44 left. Devoting all three forwards to the cycle below Carolina's goal line, they were patient about making opportunities. When St. Louis finally darted out to the side of the goal with the puck, a defender closed on him. But he spun to the outside and fed the puck through the vacated crease to Connolly, who filled the open net to close Tampa to within one, 3-2. His teammates retrieved the puck for Connolly's trophy case.
Unimpressed, Carolina answered less than a minute later. Jiri Tlusty carried the puck down the wing on a 2-on-1 with LaRose. Tlusty slowed and got Hedman to bit on the move. As the defender turned at the top of the crease, Tlusty flicked the puck to LaRose, who chopped at it. Roloson couldn't close the five-hole in time and LaRose had a two-goal game to match Skinner's, restoring the two-goal lead.
LaRose and Tlusty flanked Staal, and the line looked good, particularly since LaRose slowed himself down a gear from the "energy guy" speed at which he often plays. Perhaps he is discovering a "scoring guy" gear.
Carolina ably closed out the 4-2 win, despite Lecavalier killing them on faceoffs. Matched with Lecavalier, Brandon Sutter won only three of seventeen draws on the night, but the additional coaching the Canes have received on draws was evident in how he lost those draws. Sutter might have lost most of the pucks, but he held the space on the ice.
"I tried a few different things," Sutter noted. "When you're struggling, I think, you sometimes just want to tie it up and make sure he's not snapping them straight back."
Speaking of struggling, Staal once again failed to appear on the scoresheet, showing frustration at times to go with an ugly shiner beneath his right eye. With under seven minutes to go, he sat on the bench with his head down on the dasher, in apparent distress. Through eleven games he has just three goals and five points, and is a startling minus-thirteen. But he is assembling his game one component at a time. Staal finished with six shots, won 58 percent of his draws, and was a plus-one for the night. Not one of the stars of the win, he still contributed substantially to it, and transferred some of his frustration into physical power on the ice.
The Canes continue their homestand this week, hosting the Washington Capitals on Friday night and the Dallas Stars for a 1:30 matinee on Sunday.