RALEIGH, PNC ARENA—The Hurricanes made way for the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks tonight. Tomorrow they’ll make way for prizewinning cattle, pig races and anything you can put in a deep fat-fryer.
Coach Kirk Muller had the road trip in his sights before the season began, treating the first seven games leading up to the trip as the first chapter of the 82-game novel that is this year. After an offseason of changes, he’d know what he had at the seven-game mark.
What Muller takes on the road is a middling 2-2-3 team with seven points in seven games, but also a team that’s competing in the Metropolitan Division since the Rangers, Devils, Flyers and Capitals have started so poorly. It’s a team that’s shown some of last year’s bad habits—starting games flat, giving up late leads, failing to get the extra point beyond regulation time—while showing hopeful new flashes of secondary scoring and improved special teams, too.
Carolina showed off all of its good and bad features in Tuesday’s tilt. Down 2-0 after just 10 sluggish minutes of action, the Canes worked their way back to tie the game before coming up empty again in their third overtime game of the young season.
Early on, it seemed that every mistake the Canes made sparked a rush the other way. Cam Ward faced 15 shots in the first period alone.
The moment Carolina would turn a puck over near the Chicago goal, the Hawks would instantly sprint as one toward the Canes’ end. Chicago forwards would carry the puck to the dots and throw it back to their trailing defensemen, who would fire open slapshots at Ward as the forwards closed on the rebound chances.
Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa tallied within a three-and-a-half-minute span in the middle of the first period using that formula, prompting Muller to call his timeout to settle the Canes before it got any more out of hand. They rode out the rest of the first largely on Ward’s back. And glove. And pads.
This game was an encouraging display from Ward, who had to replace backup Anton Khudobin in the middle of the Phoenix Coyotes game on Sunday afternoon. With barely a moment to warm up in a game he hadn’t anticipated playing in, Ward wasn’t himself as the Coyotes built on their lead once he came in.
Now, lacking a quality backup, Ward finds himself in a familiar situation—likely having to play the overwhelming majority of his team’s games if Khudobin is out for a while. Khudobin, currently on injured, is expected to miss at least a week with an unspecified lower-body injury.
Ward’s teammates brought more jump in period two, gradually establishing a puck-possession game even if they couldn’t get any goals out of it. Carolina would try to establish a middle layer in the Chicago zone, so the defensemen up top could move the puck to the weak side to try to find a forward at the top of the circle. That forward would try to turn and slap the puck at the goal, where the low forwards would converge.
On the greaseboard, the play looks great, but against a coherent defensive team like the Hawks, it becomes a low-percentage play. There are too many moving parts. The puck never gets on net.
Early in the third period, however, some of Muller’s strategy did finally pay off. Tired of waiting for “the big line” of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty to get going, Muller replaced Tlusty with Tuomo Ruutu, who played his first game Sunday after an injury absence.
Tlusty dropped to the second line, with Jordan Staal and Nathan Gerbe, displacing Patrick Dwyer to Riley Nash’s wing along with Jeff Skinner. Radek Dvorak started the game on the fourth line but made occasional appearances on the second and third in the game’s final period.
The new big line got the Canes on the board just under four minutes in. Ruutu, from along the boards high in the zone, flung a perfect diagonal pass all the way across the zone to Staal at the opposite dot. Staal’s one-timer pelted off Corey Crawford just as Semin cruised the crease. The Russian flicked the puck up into the top of the goal before Crawford could flash his glove at it and the Canes had closed to 2-1.
The goal injected energy into both teams and they traded rushes for a sequence, Sharp getting the best chance walking across the goalmouth. But he was ably backchecked and could only kick at the puck as he couldn’t wrest his stick free.
Carolina knotted the score with 7:27 left as Skinner burst down the wing, dropping his shoulder like how Erik Cole used to. Although he couldn’t find room between Crawford and the near post, the puck came free in the opposite circle for a hard shot off Dvorak’s stick.
Crawford answered the shot but was flustered enough by the swarm that had gathered in front of him that he gave the Canes a gift goal. Ron Hainsey held the puck along the wall just a skate length inside the blueline, throwing it at the goal. Before Crawford could react, it settled into the far side of the net, and the goalie was left to smack his stick against the end boards in disgust as Hainsey celebrated his first goal in a Carolina uniform.
It was hard to know if Crawford was simply off his line or if traffic had prevented him from seeing the puck until too late, but in either case a game that the Canes could easily have written off in the first period was now tied.
The hockey was terrifically watchable the rest of the way, though Carolina squandered a late slashing penalty by Michal Rozsival in regulation and a hooking call to Bryan Bickell midway through the five-minute overtime.
Carolina went 0-4 on the power play in this game, looking too deliberate and predictable despite winning many more faceoffs in the offensive zone than they did against the Coyotes on Sunday. The Canes were perfect on the penalty kill, stopping three Hawks power plays in this game.
Carolina hasn’t been a decent shootout team for some time, and Chicago’s star power made the difference despite a strong finish from Ward. The Canes netminder didn’t bite on Patrick Kane’s many dekes, gloving his effort before kicking out a bull-rush shot from Jonathan Toews.
Although Gerbe got Crawford to flinch on a fake shot, he couldn’t elevate his shot enough to get it over the goalie’s leg pad. Then Semin got such a head of steam that he lost the puck in the slot and never registered a shot.
Sharp, whose goal in regulation was the 200th of his career, capped the night with a great crossover move that Ward’s glove was just behind. Crawford had to sweat out one more save to get the 3-2 win, stifling a Skinner wrist shot between the pads.
Not all one-point games are the same. After squandering a two-goal, third-period lead against Detroit on opening night, only to lose in overtime, Carolina’s consolation point delivered little. But tonight, overcoming a two-goal, third-period deficit, the Canes were about as positive as is possible getting just one point from a game.
It’s a point pulled from the gaping maw of a zero that would have haunted them as they started a four-game road trip against a hot Toronto team Thursday night. Seven points in seven games isn’t the best start Carolina could have hoped or, but it’s competitive thus far.
And it’s something to build on.