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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's capitulations: Canes succumb to Isles

Posted by on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 5:14 AM

RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—When you hang a fresh January on the kitchen wall and toss the old calendar in the trash, you hope that the forgettable parts of the old year somehow go in the landfill too.

But in their 2012 debut, the Carolina Hurricanes look agonizingly the same as they did in 2011. Giving up leads instead of building on them. Hoping the other team won’t score rather than ensuring it. And losing.

Chad LaRoses late third-period goal gave the Canes hope, but he couldnt save them in the shootout as Carolina fell to the Islanders 4-3 on a frosty Raleigh night.
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Chad LaRose's late third-period goal gave the Canes hope, but he couldn't save them in the shootout as Carolina fell to the Islanders 4-3 on a frosty Raleigh night.
The Canes lost their first game of the new year in a shootout Tuesday night, 4-3 to the New York Islanders, who had come into the game tied with Carolina in the Eastern Conference’s basement. When Evgeni Nabokov sticked away Chad LaRose’s final rush, the Isles left the Canes alone in that basement, ambling up the rickety steps toward the ground floor.

John Tavares assisted on all three regulation goals for the Isles, including a magical pass to Kyle Okposo to tie the game with 90 seconds left. Nabokov out-dueled Cam Ward in the shootout, allowing only Jussi Jokinen’s first-round goal before shutting down Eric Staal and LaRose.

Anthony Stewart, Brandon Sutter, and LaRose notched goals for the Canes, who lost leads of 2-1 and 3-2. Ward compiled 33 saves but let in two of three shootout attempts.

There weren’t many butts in the seats at the start of this one on a frigid Raleigh weeknight. The clacks of passed pucks on stick blades, if not their echoes, were clearly audible up on press row. The players somnambulated out of their tunnels as well, but they woke up quickly as both teams tallied in the first four minutes and change.

After the Canes survived the puck kicking around in a thicket of legs in front of Ward, the puck came around the horn to Michael Grabner in the high slot. The man some thought should have taken last season’s Calder Trophy as best rookie instead of Jeff Skinner fired a sharp, rising shot. Ward was more than equal, however, flinging his arm up dramatically to pick the puck out of the air.

But the stellar save didn’t result in a normal, even-strength face-off. Bryan Allen had dropped his gloves to fight, but it was not reciprocated, and Allen slunk off to the penalty box.

Ward stayed aggressive as the Isles pressed, but when Tavares fired a quick shot out of the corner, the rebound popped right onto Matt Moulson’s stick between the hash marks. He flung it over Ward’s shoulder for his team-leading 18th goal of the season.

Carolina responded 31 seconds later on a well-executed set play off a face-off. Tim Brent won the draw, which Andreas Nodl one-timed out to Jay Harrison at the point. Stewart tipped his skimming shot past Nabokov’s pad to make it 1-1.

“Harrison’s been shooting low and hard all year,” Stewart said afterwards, “And those are the shots we need more often. I just got my stick on it.”

Both teams put their nightcaps back on at that point—come to think of it, the Canes’ red home jerseys look a lot like footie pajamas—except for Tavares’ line. He, Okposo, and Moulson repeatedly hemmed in the Canes, cycling the puck down low until Tavares could walk it out of a corner with his head up, looking to pass to teammates. Ward had to stay sharp.

Carolina’s equivalent to Tavares was, unfortunately, wearing a nice blue suit and pale pink shirt instead of red and black. Jeff Skinner, missing his eleventh game while recovering from a concussion, walked the press row hallway during the first intermission, flashing his trademark smile. Skinner has returned to practice, at least, wearing a yellow, no-contact jersey, but no date has been set for his return to game action.

Carolina caught a break to take their first lead early in the second period as the sandman sprinkled his hypnotic dust on Nabokov. The goalie went behind the net to play the puck but hesitated as both Drayson Bowman and Sutter closed in on the forecheck. Sutter kicked the puck to his stick and tossed it in the vacated net before Nabokov even moved his feet and the Canes led 2-1.

But the gaffe roused Nabokov. Not a minute later he gloved a laser from Justin Faulk who had darted into the zone to steal a diagonal clearing attempt. The Russian saw 40 Canes shots in regulation.

Kirk Muller started mixing up his lines at that point, benching Jiri Tlusty for much of the rest of the game after he handed the puck to Moulson in the slot for a golden chance. Nodl took his place on a line with Staal and Dalpe. Soon Tuomo Ruutu found himself sitting for a long stretch of minutes, as well, replaced by Stewart on Jokinen’s line with Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Muller iced other combinations—Stewart and Ponikarovsky flanking Staal looked interesting, briefly—but in the second periods of games, when teams have longer changes, it’s hard to know which lines are intentional and which are formed when one player lingers because he can’t get safely off the ice. Jokinen’s line was anyhow restored during the uneventful back half of the period.

Forty minutes gone, one-goal lead at home—good teams are buoyed by this situation and come out roaring in the third to finish their opponent off. But whatever it is that sparks that roar is lacking in Carolina. Last season, Erik Cole’s third-period will drove the team down the stretch, but no one on this roster can summon that kind of determination. And so, from this point forward, the Canes let this game slip away.

Staal took a high stick on a face-off in the first minute of the third and lay on the ice for a while, trying to draw a call that never came. Once he got back to his feet, he flared with Cole-like angry energy and tried to bull through the neutral zone to the goal, but defenders converged to strip him of the puck.

Almost. For Staal, this is the season of almost.

To add insult to the injury of the missed call, Ruutu was whistled for high-sticking—only Carolina’s second penalty of the night. The Isles, however, would go 2-for-2 on the man advantage.

Seconds into the power play, Mark Streit stepped into a blast from inside the blueline. Ward overplayed the shot, coming well out above the goal to try to fend it to the corner. But the shot was wide of the net, and bounced cleanly off the back boards to Frans Nielsen on the other side. Nielsen could have taken off his gloves, spit on his hands, and rubbed them together while snickering evilly before popping the puck in the net to tie the game.

Down the stretch, the Islanders stepped up their forecheck and wore the Canes down along the boards behind the Carolina goal. As minutes dwindled, it seemed a matter of who would make the big mistake to hand a win to the other side.

LaRose whiffed on a slow pass at center ice, triggering a vicious cycle for the visitors. Then, as he skated it up the boards once the Canes finally cleared their zone, he couldn’t bring himself to take the extra stride needed to make the center red line and iced the puck.

Tim Gleason almost claimed the big mistake, pinching down the boards and behind the goal into a knot of Isles. New York took advantage of his absence up ice on an odd-man rush the other way, forcing Ward to make two hard saves.

The Islanders weren’t perfect either. Grabner broke his stick in the neutral zone and skated off to leave his wing wide open for the Canes to rush in. Then Okposo whiffed on a perfect crossing pass from Tavares when he would have had a completely uncontested path to the goal.

The run of mistakes and missed chances ended abruptly when LaRose put Carolina in front with just over four minutes left on a lunch pail goal. Sutter outworked two Islanders in the corner and chopped the puck to LaRose, who walked out to the side of the net and threw it between Nabokov’s legs.

This was the moment when will was needed. Just a handful of minutes to churn off the clock and it’s a good home win and a rung up in the standings. But the Canes chose hope rather than will, and that hope was dashed.

The Islanders stormed the Carolina end on several straight shifts. New York was simply more desperate. Travis Hamonic somehow clacked a bouncing puck down to the ice between two Canes to keep it in the Carolina zone, and pushed it to an open corner. Tavares controlled the puck curling beneath the net and out the other side. Surprising Harrison and Faulk, he flicked a pass right through the crease to Okposo on the far side. He almost knelt to pop it behind Ward to tie the game with 90 seconds on the clock.

After Moulson stole a soft pass to feed Tavares at the net for a near-winner, the game moved to overtime. Ward robbed Tavares twice with his glove, batting a shot up and over the goal and then snaring a rising wrist shot. The Canes, however, did not test Nabokov accordingly.

In the shootout, P. A. Parenteau bested Ward’s glove finally with a sharp wrist shot. Jokinen then squeaked an equalizer past Nabokov’s pad after he got the goalie to go down and changed direction with the puck.

Nielsen, who is a shootout specialist, then got Ward to bite on a deke before roofing a backhander in for what ultimately was the winner.

Staal scampered in but banged the puck off Nabokov’s right toe. Okposo swerved in slowly but Ward closed his legs with an old-school, completely upright save. Then LaRose’s backhander was sticked calmly to the corner and the Islanders mobbed Nabokov.

Carolina tries again in Raleigh on Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres.

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The Canes summoned hope rather than will, and that hope was dashed by the New York Islanders in a come-from-behind, 4-3 shootout decision.

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