RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The all-stars finally all looked like all-stars. The coach finally pushed the right buttons. And the Carolina Hurricanes finally played a game worth more than the ticket price.
Carolina's newest winger Eric Staal scored his first even-strength goal of the year, Jeff Skinner notched his team-leading seventh goal and set up two others, and Cam Ward was dazzling between the pipes as the Canes knocked off the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins 5-3 in Raleigh on Saturday night.
Tuomo Ruutu scored twice in the waning minutes of the second period to stake the Canes to a 3-0 lead and, after the Penguins stormed back to tie the game in the third, Staal popped in the winner before setting up Chad LaRose to seal the deal. The win broke a four-game losing streak for Carolina.
Eric's brother Jordan had a pair of markers for the Penguins—one shorthanded—and Chris Kunitz completed the comeback with under eight minutes to go. But the Canes steadied themselves and Pittsburgh backup goalie Brent Johnson couldn't hold them off.
After Friday's debacle in Madison Square Garden, in which the Canes gave up a pair of third-period goals in the space of nine seconds en route to a 5-1 pasting by the New York Rangers, general manager Jim Rutherford held a closed-door session with the team. You can bet he wasn't sharing vacation pictures.
With the possibility of roster changes in the air, coach Paul Maurice made changes on the ice. Brandon Sutter centered Staal and LaRose, taking the responsibility for face-offs and the brunt of the defensive coverage off the captain's shoulders.
And to his credit, Staal responded. Skating decisively all night, he survived a disallowed goal 20 seconds into the third that would have made it 4-0 Canes, followed by two quick goals by his younger brother to get the Penguins back into the contest.
Full disclosure: Your faithful Canes blogger actually has black-and-gold blood running in his veins. I crammed down among the numerous Penguins' faithful to goggle at their pre-game skatearound. Before the teams came out, the organist played “Blowing in the Wind”—a perfect theme for the Canes’ season thus far. And once the players emerged from the tunnel, it was apparent which team was atop the conference and which was struggling to stay out of its cellar.
The Penguins are a team having fun. Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal shoulder-checked each other repeatedly, laughing. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who would have the night off, tried to take a stretching Matt Cooke down with a stick in his skates. Tough-guy Aaron Asham stood at the door and fist-bumped every single player as he exited the ice. And Malkin skated off last, having to make his last warmup shot from a bad angle. They enjoyed every bit of the ritual of preparation.
The team at the other end of the ice, however, couldn't have looked more different. The Canes seemed to haul themselves through the skate. Twice that I saw, players who missed warmup shots smacked the ice with frustration. Sticks were squeezed too tightly and players bumped on the turns. Eric Staal somnambulated through it all.
But as soon as the puck was dropped for real action, it became obvious that the tightness was actually focused intensity. Deryk Engelland and Bryan Allen nearly squared off just a minute in after Allen was taken into the boards a beat too late after an offsides whistle. Asham and Allen would fight before the game was five minutes old. Both teams finished every check, with Ruutu standing out with particularly punishing play.
But the Canes put up the only score of the first. Just 92 seconds in, Jussi Jokinen found Skinner as he came free in the slot. His backhander clanked off the post, bounced off Johnson's back, and rolled in, breaking his four-game goalless streak.
For most of the first period, though, that was the Canes' only shot as the Penguins dominated territorial play. But Cam Ward was sensational, stopping all of the high shots that had appeared to have been plaguing him over the last week.
Twice on one shift, Matt Niskanen one-timed passes off the boards. Twice Ward's pads dully thumped the puck out.
From just inside the blueline, James Neal fed Steve Sullivan in Ward's lap, but the goalie lifted his left pad a la the Rockettes to kick the puck to the corner.
Then on a Pittsburgh power play, Ward simply robbed Kunitz on a rebound of a Kris Letang point blast, throwing an arm out to deaden a rising shot from the lip of the crease, then recovering to sit on the puck after Sullivan put it off the post.
Twice Ward stopped Malkin, who looked world-class all night and put 12 shots on net. With six minutes left, Malkin kicked the puck from a Carolina stick to his on an aggressive forecheck and walked in alone on Ward with all the time in the world. Ward showed and then closed the five-hole, smacking the rebound away to the boards. Then with under two to go in the frame, Malkin closed again as teams were skating four-on-four, firing an instant wrist shot. Ward's right-pad kick save was better, though.
During intermission I had the heart-racing pleasure of passing Sidney Crosby, whom many speculated might return to action this weekend after having been out since Jan. 5 with a concussion, in the hallway behind the press boxes. Star-struck, I could only manage the same question that Crosby has been asked perhaps a hundred times a day for months on end: "How are you feeling tonight?" Duh. With equal parts generosity and tedium, Crosby answered, "Good, good." Then I had to sit down and breathe into a paper bag to restore myself.
The game turned a bit woolly in the second period as teams took turns pouncing on turnovers created by great forechecking. James Neal nearly tied the game a minute in but Ward's glove lashed out and picked a shot out of the air that was dialed in for the upper corner of the net. Jordan Staal almost made Ward look bad though, taking the puck off his stick behind the net in the waning seconds of a Canes' power play and backhanding a pass to a cutting Pascal Dupuis who fired high from the slot.
Carolina gave Pittsburgh 1:28 of 5-on-3 time in the middle of the period, but gritty shot-blocking and disciplined structural play in front of Ward frustrated the Penguins and whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The Canes converted the momentum from the kill into goals in the last five minutes of the period.
First, though, Malkin made a breathtaking end-to-end jaunt, dekeing and juking all five Carolina skaters to put a sneaky wrister low on Ward. Blocker tight to pad, the netminder deflected it away, and the Canes counterattacked.
The Ruutu-Jokinen-Skinner line took over from there. After Jokinen's slapshot left Johnson teetering, Skinner fed the rebound to a cutting Ruutu who roofed it from the low slot over Johnson's stick. Then, after Neal set Malkin up for a nuclear one-timer from the circle that Ward absorbed with his chest, The line again exerted pressure, cycling patiently before getting the puck into traffic in front of the net. Ruutu took charge again, backhanding it beneath Johnson as the one-minute-left announcement was still echoing in the rink for a 3-0 lead after forty minutes.
The Penguins played the opening five minutes of the third like the Canes finished the second, but not before Staal nearly turned the night into a rout. Twenty seconds into the period, the captain came in on a breakaway. Johnson stopped him with an upright leg save, as well as Staal's jab at the rebound in the crease. But as the whistle blew, the still-loose puck skittered in, either from a touch from Staal's stick or an inadvertent kick from Johnson. Either way, the goal should have counted but it didn't. Boos rained down.
Those boos intensified just over a minute later as Penguins' coach Dan Bylsma double-shifted centerman Malkin on Staal's wing. So good with his feet, Malkin fetched the puck out of a corner battle with his skateblade and fed Staal in the slot. His slapper found its way beneath Ward and the Penguins woke up.
Undaunted by Asham's slashing minor on Skinner, Staal potted his second of the night just 12 seconds into a penalty kill three minutes later. Looking up ice rather than simply icing it, Cooke and Brooks Orpik connected the dots with nice passes to spring Staal alone to make it 3-2. Some frantic action followed, with Johnson nearly making a gaffe trying to clear the puck himself. A Canes stick knocked the aerial puck down into the high slot and Johnson just slid back into the crease to pad away a Skinner wrister. Then Richard Park broke in shorthanded but Ward made a wall and stifled the puck as Park shot it.
Suddenly, the moment bore a similarity to the turning point of the previous night's game in New York. On that occasion, having seen a 1-1 tie become a 3-1 deficit in the time it takes a kid to count to start a game of hide and seek, the Canes rolled over and died. Tonight, they would do the opposite.
Sutter circled the zone and fired a good shot when Johnson fell down, but Letang saved a goal by turning his skates sideways and hoping he caught some of the puck, which he did. Then, after surviving a lengthy siege by the Malkin-Staal-Neal line, Skinner drew a trip and Ruutu nearly caught Johnson daydreaming with a hard throw into his skates from the wall.
But once the Penguins got things back to even terms, they completed their comeback, tying the game with under eight minutes remaining as Dupuis pushed the defense back on a rush and dropped the puck for a trailing Kunitz. He surprised Ward high to the blocker side into the far corner of the net. It was 3-3. Gulp.
When Malkin rambled in on yet another breakaway on the next shift, the crowd's collective heart seemed to audibly stop. But Ward somehow got his right leg on the puck and gathered it beneath him. The Russian sniper smacked the boards as he skated off. That Ward held Malkin to a lone assist on this night is hard to believe. Malkin had time and space to unleash the shot he wanted on the majority of the 12 pucks he put on Ward. But he could not beat him.
The Carolina captain, however, could beat the other goalie.
The Sutter line stormed the crease and harried Johnson. In the high Pittsburgh zone, players dashed about, reaching for the puck but not possessing it. Finally LaRose threw it toward the net. Johnson left a dead rebound at the post and Staal chipped it in a fraction of a second before the net was dislodged. The official vehemently signaled goal and the Canes mobbed their leader with 4:34 left.
Staked to a lead again, Carolina could smell blood, and Staal outfought two Penguins along the boards at the red line to flick a pass out to LaRose, who skated in for, ostensibly, a penalty shot. He bested Johnson with 2:30 left to put the Canes up 5-3. Despite a penalty with just under a half-minute to go, Carolina closed out the win.
It's tempting to make a big deal about what the Rangers loss and Penguins win mean for this Canes team just 17 games into this season. Still two games under .500, with a tough Monday date looming with the visiting Flyers, Carolina is a solid fourth in their division. But the complete-game fight that they brought to this game was impressive. The question is: is it addictive? The Penguins are at the top of the conference because they play each night like this. The Canes showed that, when they can do that, they can beat anyone. As the schedule accelerates, Carolina could get on a roll. Or they could buckle.
Either way, the Cardiac Canes were back. Let's hope they stay for a while.