RBC CENTER (RALEIGH)—The big stars set up the goals. The grinders scored them. And the penalty-killers finished off the last frantic minutes. That’s one of many narratives that a good team can follow to win a hockey game.
It is not, however, a chapter that the Carolina Hurricanes can author right now, as they turn the pages of their horror story of a season.
Former Cane Craig Adams tallied a goal and an assist, unheralded forwards Aaron Asham and Pascal Dupuis scored 1:27 apart during the third period, and Brent Johnson notched 30 saves, none more important that the last, desperate stop of a Jussi Jokinen shot with 17 seconds left and the Penguins down three men.
When you face the Pittsburgh Penguins, you first must deal with their high-end talent at center. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal make the Penguins a nightmare for coaches to match up against. And a team like the Hurricanes—one that does not shell out the cash for all-stars—basically has to choose which vial of poison to drink.
No configuration of the Canes roster exists to deal with a team like the Penguins. As soon as your best checking line has battled one of their lines to a draw, they throw another one of those lines over the boards. Crosby skates off and suddenly you have Malkin jumping on. Malkin skates off and Jordan Staal is rocketing around the ice. And in a sport where most of the games are decided by one goal, it means that you lose to this team most of the time, because rolling those lines for three periods eventually makes that difference.
The big stars didn’t score the goals for the Penguins but they set them up with the kinds of plays that no Hurricanes player is capable of making or defending right now. And it’s why Carolina, despite putting out a very good team effort, lost their sixth straight game and left new coach Kirk Muller still looking for his first win in his three-game tenure.
Let it be said that for much of this game, the Canes skated with the Penguins, forechecking and counterattacking effectively. The first period was a draw, and Muller’s decision to dress seven defensemen kept the pairings fresh and agile. The flip side of that decision—only eleven forwards—meant that Eric Staal double-shifted much of the night, racking up almost 27 minutes of ice time.
Staal was pointless again but skated with jump all night, and nearly cashed in on his last shift to tie the game.
Nearly. But not quite.
Staal’s counterpart on the Penguins, captain Crosby, couldn’t get a goal either, but he got on the score sheet on the first goal of the night in the second period, on one of many plays in which he conjured a scoring opportunity out of next to nothing.
Crosby was so magical, in fact, he turned a ruined two-on-one into an assist for his linemate Chris Kunitz. Bryan Allen became a sliding snow angel to take away both a pass and a shot from Kunitz, who banged the puck off his side to the corner. But Crosby never slowed, tapping the puck up the boards past Jokinen in the circle. Chad LaRose wasn’t strong enough collecting that puck, and in one instant motion Crosby picked LaRose clean and backhanded a no-look pass to Adams, who had crashed the net. Straddling the goal line, Adams one-timed the puck. It climbed its way across Boucher’s back and in at the 8:34 mark.
Crosby’s left-turn to simultaneously lose LaRose and throw the puck to Adams looked like a jump cut in a film. He was surrounded by Canes players. And yet.
With under five to go in the second, Jeff Skinner couldn’t figure out how to open his early Christmas present from Johnson. Given the puck at the completely open side of the net, Skinner whiffed on his first shot and then clanged a second crack at the puck off the goalpost and away, all before Johnson could even get back into the area. Skinner slammed his stick on the back of the net in frustration and disbelief afterward.
“It was kind of a bang-bang play,” Skinner said later, shaking his head and looking at his hands. “I caught it on my foot and just tried to swipe at it. It bounced off my stick. That’s a tough one, but that’s the way it’s going right now.”
Despite the frustration of Skinner’s miss, the Canes kept working and it paid off with 1:19 left in the frame.
With an extra skater on during a delayed penalty, Joni Pitkanen drifted from center point to one side, allowing McBain to set up camp on the other point. McBain one-timed Pitkanen’s point-to-point pass into the far corner of the net, flatly beating Johnson’s glove and popping his water bottle into the air. He stood in place waiting for teammates to mob him to celebrate his first goal of the season.
As the third period opened, the Canes had to feel pretty good about being tied after 40 minutes despite the fact that they’d not yet converted that situation into a win yet this season, racking up an 0-5-1 mark when tied after two.
By the midpoint of the period, you could see why they’re now 0-6-1.
The Penguins attacked hard from the drop of the puck. Not two minutes in, Crosby’s line fired shot after shot, and eventually Crosby one-timed a missed shot off the back boards onto Boucher, who threw himself across in front of it to absorb the puck, knocking the whole net off its pegs in the effort.
Crosby and Malkin seemed to be almost constantly on the ice. But Boucher held them off. And then the fourth line took a shift.
Paul Martin moved a routine break-out pass up the boards to Adams, who was given more room than he probably deserved by Skinner. Adams crossed the Carolina blueline and slowed to survey his options. Jordan Staal cruised the slot to clear space for a trailing Asham. He wristed Adams’ pass over Boucher’s glove to put Pittsburgh back in front 2-1.
After Staal and Tuomo Ruutu took coincidental slashing calls, Malkin created a goal for Dupuis. Malkin mesmerized the Canes’ defense by skating circles in the zone. The rebound of his second hard backhand shot of the shift bounced off Boucher and Dupuis outmuscled Justin Faulk to bang the puck home at exactly the ten-minute mark.
Again, the now two-goal lead did not dishearten the Canes. They went on the power play and finally cashed in themselves with just four seconds left on the man advantage. Johnson couldn’t hold a tricky scoop shot by Patrick Dwyer and McBain flashed past to poke the rebound through Johnson’s legs. With 7:30 left it was 3-2 and the Canes had hope.
James Neal thought he restored the two-goal margin a few minutes later, diving to backhand a loose puck through a crowd in the crease. But Malkin—who had created the chance in the same way that he did for Dupuis earlier—had tangled enough with Boucher for the officials to wave the goal off in a review. The contact was deemed incidental, so no penalty was called, but Boucher didn’t have a chance to play the shot.
Tomas “Pillowcase” Kaberle made his only noticeable play of the night with just over three minutes left, lifting a puck hard into Jordan Staal’s face at the 3:13 mark. Staal writhed and bled profusely, and didn’t return to the game.
As one of the Penguins’ key penalty killers, Staal’s absence would become important almost instantly as they began parading to the penalty box. Just 22 seconds after Asham took the box for a too-many-men call, Dupuis held Eric Staal on a face-off and got the gate, setting up a five-on-three with 2:04 remaining and Boucher’s departure imminent.
After a Penguins clear, Boucher skated to the bench to give Carolina a rare three-man advantage. How could they not score?
Oh wait. They’re the Hurricanes.
Pittsburgh’s killers blocked shots like it was game seven of a playoff series, and Johnson’s pads did the rest. When Matt Cooke was whistled for tripping with just under a minute left, it merely served as a free timeout for the visitors.
Frantic play followed, and Jokinen nearly tied the game with 17.2 ticks left. His open shot bounced off Johnson’s skate and then the near post. With Eric Staal digging his stick hard beneath Johnson for the rebound, the goaltender somehow clamped the puck between his right arm and his body while lying flat on his back. Brooks Orpik belly-flopped between Johnson and the goal line for good measure, drawing a video review to see if he might have put a hand over the puck, but Johnson’s save was clear.
The Penguins blocked a couple more shots and tied the puck up in the corner to run the remaining time off.
Carolina’s loss, coupled with a win by the New York Islanders, puts the Canes alone at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. And it doesn’t get any easier—they depart for a Canadian swing, including dates in Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg in the space of just four nights.
Carolina’s next home date is Dec. 15, when they welcome the Vancouver Canucks to Raleigh.