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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Canes won't go away, drop Panthers for fourth straight win

Posted by on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 4:02 AM

PNC ARENA, RALEIGH—I am skilled, as it turns out, at avoiding jinxes.

In order to snap my team out of a bad stretch of play in a game, I can sense just when to change clothing or turn my jersey inside-out. To fend off a favorite player’s injury in his first game back after a long concussion absence, I recently ate a hard-boiled egg while doing a handstand, knowing that such an absurd act would prompt the hockey gods to protect his noggin from further harm.

Calm and confident, Cam Ward just missed a shutout against the Panthers.
And I especially know that even the slightest breath devoted to counting chickens before they hatch is the worst kind of jinx possible, almost guaranteeing that one’s hopes will not come to fruition. Rather than fluffy peeps, one would get an omelet.

How, then, to approach the description of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 3-1 victory Wednesday night over the division-leading Florida Panthers? The primary storyline of this, the Canes’ fourth straight win, is obvious: the team’s now only five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games remaining in the regular season. But, surely, even mentioning the playoffs at such a fragile moment would be a terrible jinx.

The Canes would essentially have to win out the rest of their schedule and hope for each of Washington, Winnipeg, and the streaking Buffalo Sabres to drop at least half their remaining games. Breathe a word about that and its mathematical possibility tumbles off the skate blade it’s balanced on. No jinx.

After all, there are plenty of other secondary storylines to yammer about after this win.

Eric Staal continued to melt the ice, scoring a pair of goals for the second straight game and only missing a hat trick when his center-ice fillip found the vacated Florida net while the final horn was still sounding. “I needed two more seconds on the clock,” he chuckled afterwards, enjoying a bit of teasing from the press corps.

Joni Pitkanen returned from a 44-game absence with a vengeance. After recovering from the double whammy of a concussion and knee surgery, the big Finn flicked in a neat goal joining a rush in the second period and added a power-play assist with a slap pass to Staal in the third. “It’s been tough to be away from the rink and to see the games on TV, and then coming here and seeing the games from the press box,” he admitted. “We have eight games left and everything is possible.”

Whoa—that sounds like jinx territory there, Joni. Let’s move on.

Tough guy Jeff Skinner rejoined the lineup also, ringing up a couple more roughing minors against a Panthers squad that became grouchier as their fate became clear. Wait, what’s that? Skinner’s a scorer? He did tally an assist. But as his sophomore year winds down he seems to endure more and more abuse from opponents. Skinner’s not soft, but sandpaper has to be on the team’s offseason shopping list or their wunderkind is going to be black and blue instead of black and red.

Cam Ward shone in net, as well, missing a shutout only because Tomas Fleischmann’s blind throw into the slot ticked off Pitkanen’s skates right into the goal in the second period. With 30 saves on this night, the netminder racked up career win no. 201 in just his seventh season in the league.

Ward was particularly good in the waning minutes of the second period, when the Panthers were trying to tie the game after having yielded the first two goals. Stumbling from one post to the other, he nonetheless sealed the post to stop a Fleischmann one-timer of a point shot that had caromed straight off the back boards. Then, on the next shift, Ward had to make that same move twice to foil bad-angle efforts from Scottie Upshall and Jerred Smithson, flashing great attention to detail in his footwork to preserve the Carolina lead.

It’s hard to hurl your body at the post like that. A lot can go wrong. Come up against the post too hard and you can bounce off it or lose your balance and leave a gap for the puck to get through. Or you could knock the net off and risk a penalty. But then if you scoot over too slowly, the shot could sneak through before you arrive. It’s not a desperation move but a precision one. Your skate has to be angled right or you leave a puck-sized gap along the ice. Smart shooters go for the goalie’s skates on purpose, hoping to deflect a puck in beneath his body. Your arm also has to be tight against your body or a puck could get between them. And your shoulder has to press into the bend of the goal pipe to take away a high shot. Ward went post to post to post like he was magnetically clicking onto it each time.

With the Canes playing like this, stringing together their longest winning streak of the season, it’s hard to avert one’s eyes from the standings or resist figuring out the playoff what-ifs. Fearing no jinx, Coach Kirk Muller talked directly about the playoff drive. “Right at the All-Star break we had a meeting. We said to the guys: ‘This is when the big boys come out to play. It’s where you really have to step up.’ Our guys have been doing that since then.”

I guess that if the coach is talking about it, then maybe I can talk about it. Could this team somehow sneak into the playoffs? They’re doing their part, winning games. A three-game swing through Columbus, Detroit, and Toronto presents a challenge, coming next, but they’re playing their best hockey here when the stakes are highest. It’s about how they’re playing, not some jinx.

Still, I’m going to hard-boil some eggs.

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The Hurricanes never trailed in a 3-1 win over division-leading Florida to run their season-high winning streak to four and (no jinx!) stay relevant to the playoff picture.

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