RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Jussi Jokinen fished the puck out of the net. With a flick of Jerome Samson’s wrist, the two-dollar disk had instantly become the most valuable object in the rink.
Stepping over vanquished Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Jokinen delivered the puck to Samson who, called up from the Charlotte Checkers Monday night, had just scored his first NHL goal.
The ritual goes like this. Even as the goal horn is sounding, a veteran teammate retrieves the puck. He gives it to the breathless scorer after the on-ice hugs have finished. Handling the puck like a lump of radiant plutonium, the scorer tilts it gently into the cupped palms of one of the trainers on the bench. Quickly, a stripe of athletic tape is wrapped around the otherwise anonymous puck so it doesn’t get mixed up and lost. In shaky capital letters, the trainer writes the scorer’s name and “first NHL goal” around the puck’s equator with a magic marker.
“It took longer than I thought,” Samson noted calmly with the slight lilt of a French-Canadian. “I’ve been scoring in the AHL for the last couple of years.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time—four or five months. I came here in training camp with the mentality of making this team right off the bat. It didn’t happen. So I went down [to Charlotte] and did what I had to do. And I finally got the call last night. It was a long drive—two-and-a-half hours, by myself. The butterflies were already starting last night. But as I stepped on the ice, it was still the same game, so I just tried to do my things out there.”
If Paul Maurice were still coaching this team, tonight would have been a shutout. Samson would have skated three or four minutes on the fourth line, playing only to spell the regulars. And once Chad LaRose was healthy enough to return later this week from a minor upper body injury sustained in Monday’s practice, Samson would have gassed up his car again for the return drive down Route 85, leaving those butterflies behind him.
He still may make that drive once LaRose is ready to play, but at least now he can glance down at the puck sitting on the passenger’s seat.
Coach Kirk Muller believes that minor-league scorers need to be put on scoring lines—not checking lines—when they’re called up. You don’t pull a tree stump out of the ground with a Ferrari. And although Samson’s no Ferrari, he’s certainly not a heavy-duty pickup truck either. He was the Canes’ best forward throughout this game.
Samson started with Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, but really found his game playing with Tuomo Ruutu on Eric Staal’s wing. And Samson’s goal came while playing on the first power-play unit.
“I thought he deserved the opportunity. It’s not just because he’s young,” Muller explained later. “When kids come up, if they play well, we’re going to reward them.”
Muller acknowledged the joy of that first goal, but immediately tempered it with the hard-work mentality that kept him on an NHL sheet of ice for two decades.
“Yeah, it’s a great feeling. That’s the stuff you love to see. Now, it’s about consistency. A lot of them that I’ve seen so far have shown that they can play here but they have to be consistent and they can’t take a night off. That’s the NHL, that’s how tough it is.”
“So today is game one, and he scored. And now he’s got to be ready to learn that, if he’s in the lineup next game, he’s got to play the same way.”
Youth was also served for the Flyers in this game. Their scoring came from rookies Brayden Schenn—who just tallied his first career goal a little over a week ago in the Winter Classic outdoor game—and Sean Couturier, whose third-period winner happened because of the spry legs of first-year winger Harry Zolnierczyk.
The scoreless first period looked much like a game smack in the middle of an 82-game regular season schedule. January and February are a grind and, other than Claude Giroux’s breakaway attempt only six seconds into the game, the players worked the puck up and down the ice but produced few memorable moments.
The goalies were on their games from the start. Cam Ward calmly fended off that Giroux effort. With a couple minutes left in the period, Jakub Voracek stung one that squirmed out of Ward’s glove and trickled an inch wide of the post, drawing gasps from the crowd.
Ward made his best save of the night to keep the game scoreless in the first minutes of the second period. While shorthanded, Giroux fed Maxime Talbot on a two-on-one but Ward swept his arm across space and batted a tricky rising shot to the corner as if pounding a tennis backhand.
Schenn broke through a couple minutes later, however, as the Canes were caught in their second-period sleepwalk. Wayne Simmonds caught a neat pass from between Jamie McBain’s feet, forcing Ward to slide along the ice to make a save. Unimpeded, Schenn crashed the net to bang the rebound in.
Midway through the game, Jaroslav Spacek took a Kimmo Timonen slapshot to the head and didn’t return to the game. Spacek spent several minutes on his knees before skating off, flexing his jaw.
Then came Samson’s moment.
What won’t be remembered is how Samson flopped on a rush to draw a pretty cheap interference call on Timonen to give the Canes a power play. Staal won the opening face-off to Samson, and he rushed the puck behind the net, centering deftly to Justin Faulk in the high slot.
Faulk fired off of Bobrovsky but Samson flicked in the rebound, having darted around the net to the other side. After the fist pumps and bear hugs, the first two high-fives from the bench were from assistant coach John MacLean and Muller.
The tied game went to the final frame but Couturier untied it less than four minutes in.
After Couturier blocked a Faulk drive high in the Philadelphia zone, Zolnierczyk grabbed the loose puck and rocketed up the right wing, surprising Jay Harrison with his speed. Zolnierczyk put a hard enough shot on Ward that the goalie couldn’t glove it cleanly. Couturier finished the rebound for the game-winner, out-skating Faulk to the crease.
The Canes pressed down the stretch but couldn’t find the answer. Samson had the best chance with just three minutes left but he was unable to settle a brilliant pass from Staal on a two-on-one rush. The late-period snowy ice of the Flyers’ slot caused the puck to wobble and it slid off his stick wide of the goal.
The Canes don’t have much time to celebrate Samson’s accomplishment or regret the missed opportunity. After Wednesday’s practice they play three games in four nights. After a Thursday match in Tampa, the Canes return to host the Bruins on Saturday night and then scoot up to Washington for a Sunday matinee with the Capitals.