PNC ARENA (RALEIGH)—It’s game one of 82. This morning, when you get up and look in the bathroom mirror, and your unfulfilled dreams seem to press back at you from the other side of the glass, say, “It’s game one of 82.”
Detroit scored twice in the third period, including the tying goal with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker with just 14 seconds left, and then won the game in overtime, 3-2.
New Canes Radek Dvorak and Nathan Gerbe tallied for Carolina and Cam Ward made 35 saves. But Justin Abdelkader halved a 2-0 Canes lead in the first minute of the third period, Henrik Zetterberg tied matters in the last minute, and Stephen Weiss won it in the extra frame.
It’s a loss that a team more used to winning can shrug off with an “It wasn’t our night.” But for Carolina, a team with an entrenched losing culture, it’s harder to dismiss.
But it’s game one of 82, so let’s tick off the positives, because there were many:
Carolina won the special-teams battle—Against Detroit? Really? The Canes killed all three Wings power plays, keeping Johan Franzen’s big body enough out of Ward’s way that he could pad out their point shots, and disrupting their diagonal passes to the weak side. And the Canes scored once in their three man-advantages, when Nathan Gerbe smacked home a puck that deflected off Niklas Kronwall’s shins in the final 20 seconds of a late-second-period power play.
Cam Ward looked good—Great, even. He saw 38 shots, and only allowed the tying goal in the final seconds after he’d lost his stick in the frenzy around the crease. He moved from post to post exceptionally well and flashed the glove every time it was tested. This was a less aggressive, more efficient Ward. He only came out above the crease to challenge lone shooters coming down the wing, choosing instead to defend the netmouth against a team with talented cross-ice passers like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who fired just such a pass to Abdelkader for Detroit’s first goal. Ward, pushing off the near post to skid across to face Abdelkader, couldn’t close the five-hole quite soon enough.
Jordan Staal played angry—This looked like the Jordan Staal who used to play for the Penguins, who would go into corners, plant his stickblade on the ice, and use his backside to shove opponents away from the puck. As opposed to the Jordan Staal who played for the Canes last year, who jabbed at the puck in the corner like someone raking leaves and then got left behind as the other team took possession and rushed the other way. With linemates Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer (not a misprint), he checked the Datsyuk line effectively all night and showed offensive chemistry with Gerbe on the forecheck.
Justin Faulk is awesome—He’s our team scoring leader with assists on both goals, and his confident, decisive skating and puckhandling in the offensive zone was a beauty to watch. The 21-year-old Faulk is being asked to play a veteran role on this team and he’s looking the part with his attention to detail and ability to make plays at key moments in the game. On the shift after the Canes’ first goal, he read a pass from Zetterberg to slap at Datsyuk’s stick, foiling a slam-dunk chance at the side of the goal. Then he resisted chasing Datsyuk behind the goal, turning his skates to deflect a blind centering pass harmlessly to the corner.
The retreads held up, mostly—With Tim Gleason still out of the lineup, the blueline pairings made you stifle a grimace. If the Buffalo Sabres didn’t want Andrej Sekera, and the Winnipeg Jets didn’t want Ron Hainsey, do we really want them? Well, we’ve got them. Sekera looked pretty good, blocking six shots and putting three of his own on net. But the pairing of Hainsey and Brett Bellemore left something to be desired as the game wore on. Hainsey was unable to clear the rebound of a Johan Franzen shot, allowing Weiss to dart in for the overtime winner.
As for the negatives, well, they lost a game that a good team wins. In their season opener at home, they lost after leading by two goals going into the third period. There’s that flushing sound again. All those positives are circling the bowl.
It’s game one, but now that Detroit’s in the Eastern Conference, plucking defeat from the jaws of victory on this night is a three-point swing in the standings, head-to-head with a team that’s likely to be in the bottom half of the playoff bracket—which is Carolina’s aspiration too. When it comes time for game 81 in Detroit in the spring, we could be looking grimly at the standings, talking about this October tilt.
Tonight, the big line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alex Semin was rarely noticeable, though coach Kirk Muller kept them away from the Datsyuk line all night. No points, a -6 and a total of three shots isn’t going to cut it. Semin, who was a game-time decision with a gimpy wrist, looked like he should have sat this one out. He circled outside the action, hoping for lose pucks to poach or lazy passes to intercept.
Muller has to take some blame too. For the final five minutes, the Canes were very content to flip the puck out of their zone to center ice and change players, rather than pushing it to try to score the knockout goal. Once Jimmy Howard left his crease for the bench with 1:27 left, the Canes didn’t appear to realize that they could try to score an empty-net goal.
By playing not-to-lose, they almost guaranteed that they would. Detroit crammed all their all-stars and future hall-of-famers into the Carolina zone and kept working the puck around. The tying goal seemed inevitable in the final seconds. Only Ward seemed to have the desperation necessary to close the win out, but he couldn’t reach up to pluck a smart, shoveled shot from Zetterberg, from between two defenders, in the low slot.
Carolina has no killer instinct. When the team looks in the mirror, they should say, “You have no killer instinct.”
Instead, they will say, “It’s game one of 82.” Flush.