Weird things happen on New Year’s Eve. We all have our stories. I once woke up on a stranger’s lawn in an unfamiliar town in the twilight of the next morning. You just roll with these things. Don’t ask questions; just let it play out.
After losing five games in a row, the Carolina Hurricanes found themselves down 3—0 to Montreal after two periods on New Year’s Eve. For 40 minutes, they’d given their fans plenty of reasons to need drinks later.
But, striking like lightning reanimating Dick Clark’s body, the Canes suddenly held a 4—3 lead just eight minutes later. They finished off Montreal with an overtime goal by Alexander Semin, sparking a five-game winning streak that Columbus ended last Friday night.
Happy New Year. We’ll take the Jekyll with the Hyde.
So why the sudden change of fortune? It could be the standings, where the Canes had been in danger of falling well off the pack. Or it could have been trade winds a-blowing.
Case in point—the New Year’s Day swap with Toronto of gritty (read: slow) defenseman Tim Gleason for offensive (read: motivated) defenseman John-Michael Liles. Liles promptly tallied for the Canes versus his old team, while Gleason delivered an ill-tempered slash in the waning moments of the lopsided Leafs loss. Raise your hand if you miss Gleason. Anyone? Didn’t think so.
Cam Ward pulled up lame after presiding over the comeback against the Habs, but still surrendered a late, tying goal in the third period to spoil a chance at a regulation win. Anton Khudobin, meanwhile, stepped right off the injured reserve list to win his first four games back. He seemed to fight the puck early in the games, but calmed down by the middle of the opening period each night. I even grabbed him for my fantasy team. Ward is day-to-day.
Jeff Skinner continues to melt the ice. His hat trick in Washington was just one highlight in a five-game stretch (7G, 4A, what?) that garnered the NHL’s first star of the week. Jordan Staal has thawed as well, with a four-point night in Toronto, including a shorthanded goal on a wrist shot that should be framed and put in the North Carolina Museum of Art, replacing those Porsches.
Big brother Eric (day-to-day) hasn’t been as lucky. He’s missed three straight games with a lower-body concern, which could mean any kind of injury of any severity, anywhere beneath the belt.
An irksome aside on Canes television broadcasts: Does it chafe anyone else that the impeccable John Forslund and the excitable Tripp Tracy call the Staal brothers by their first names? Yes, the alternative is to call them both “Staal,” which would be confusing. Oh, except it wouldn’t. They wear unique numbers and move completely differently on the ice. When I hear “Skinner passes to Jordan,” I think of a) MJ and b) girls’ youth-league soccer.
Notes: Three Canes punched tickets to the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Justin Faulk (USA), Tuomo Ruutu (Finland) and Andrej Sekera (Slovakia) were selected for their national teams, while Semin and Eric Staal, both Olympians in Vancouver in 2010, were left off the Russian and Canadian teams, respectively… The slumping Winnipeg Jets fired coach Claude Noël on Sunday, replacing him with two-time Canes boss Paul Maurice, who brings his dour visage to PNC Arena on Feb. 4… Rookie Elias Lindholm, lent to silver-medalist Sweden for the World Junior Championships, returned to tally a goal and two assists in the 6—1 drubbing of Toronto. Lindholm (2G, 7A, 6GP) was among the tournament scoring leaders… Credit the Polar Vortex with an assist for snowing out a date with the Sabres on Jan. 7 and affording the boys an extra day of rest. They’ll shuffle back to Buffalo on Feb. 25…
Carolina Hurricanes, 13-12-5, second place in the Metropolitan Division
Last week (3-1):
12/1: Vancouver 3, @Carolina 2
12/3: Carolina 4, @Washington 1
12/5: Carolina 5, @Nashville 2
12/6: @Carolina 5, San Jose 3
This week: 12/9 @Vancouver; 12/10 @Edmonton; 12/12 @Calgary; 12/14 @Phoenix
Wait… fourteen goals in three games? Second place in the division? Did someone fact-check all that?
Indeed, the Canes have been scoring and winning lately, taking a crucial divisional game in Washington before hanging five goals each on a pair of Western Conference teams. A three-game win streak puts them a point ahead of the Caps and Rangers in the standings.
PNC ARENA—The sleeper has awoken, at least for one night.
In just his third game with the Carolina Hurricanes, Manny Malhotra scored an inspiring breakaway goal in overtime to down the Philadelphia Flyers, 2-1.
It was the kind of stirring vindication that could rouse this team’s offense from a season-long slumber.
After yielding a late power-play score by Scott Hartnell, the Canes forced overtime when Jordan Staal tallied with just 52 seconds left in regulation while goalie Justin Peters, who made 28 saves in his first win on the season, was pulled for the extra attacker.
Despite yielding the late goals, Steve Mason was excellent in the Philadelphia goal, saving 36 shots in the loss.
PNC ARENA—The ruthlessly positive coach wasn’t feeling particularly positive.
“We were light tonight. We got pushed out of the game. They played a heavier game than we did.”
Penguins rookie Jayson Megna scored his first NHL goal and added an assist while looking like the best skater on the ice for much of the night. Sidney Crosby added a pair of assists and defenseman Brooks Orpik tallied helpers on all three Penguins goals in front of Marc-Andre Fleury’s 20 casual saves.
Nathan Gerbe, playing in his 200th career game, scored the Canes’ lone goal on a 5-on-3 power play in the first period. Taking the starting goalie role during Cam Ward’s month-long injury absence, Justin Peters put in a solid performance in stopping 26 shots. Not even a terrific early fight between Brett Sutter and Joe Vitale could spark the homers.
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.
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.
PNC ARENA—The Canes were able to say that they accomplished all the points of their game plan Tuesday night. They got goals from the bottom two lines and from their defense. They didn’t flag in the second period, as has been their pattern of late. And they matched their opponent’s physicality in all three zones.
But they still lost.
Blueliners Joe Corvo and Bobby Sanguinetti both tallied in the first period off faceoffs won in the Penguins’ zone, flinging wrist shots over Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove. The Staal brothers must have had flashbacks to Canes practice in the faceoff circle. Former Canes Brandon Sutter and Jussi Jokinen, who was traded to Pittsburgh just a week ago, took 29 of the 59 draws in the game.
PNC ARENA—In the space of 31 seconds Saturday night, the Carolina Hurricanes' season officially ended.
Just like that, a competitive game between two teams fighting for a playoff berth became a laugher. On their way to an almost casual 4-1 win, the Rangers moved to seventh in the Eastern Conference. And on a night when Winnipeg and Washington both won to put more distance between themselves and Carolina, the Canes dropped their franchise record-tying seventh straight home game.
Mathematically, the playoffs are still possible for Carolina. But ostensibly, after a nightmarish March and first week of April, this season is now in the books, and it's time to start taking stock of a team that once again teased fans with promise but came up lacking talent, fight and focus in the moments it needed them most.
RALEIGH—The "South-least" division looks to be coming to an end.
The National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) approved a league realignment plan on Wednesday that would create four divisions—two of seven teams and two of eight teams—out of the existing six divisions. The league would still comprise an eastern and a western conference. The plan, which will assuage critics of the current playoff seeding system, also includes a wild-card playoff round.
Now that the NHLPA has given their thumb's-up, the league's Board of Governors (the 30 franchise owners) is the final ratifying body. They are expected to approve the realignment in a vote that could happen as soon as next week.
Caniacs will see their Hurricanes join the existing Atlantic Division of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and New York Islanders. The Washington Capitals and the Columbus Blue Jackets will round out the new Atlantic Division. The Caps are the Canes' only current Southeast Division rival remaining in the Atlantic.
Along with the Detroit Red Wings, who are slated for the new Central Division, Columbus leaves the Western Conference. The Winnipeg Jets, meanwhile, head west. No more 1,350-mile trips to Manitoba for the Canes.
Although the unbalanced conferences gave some players pause, the NHLPA didn't want to rock the boat after half the season was lost to a hostile labor stoppage. Pundits have already pointed out that the imbalanced alignment leaves a couple phantom slots for expansion teams in the west. That makes cities like Las Vegas, Kansas City and Quebec City pretty excited.
Pending the Board of Governors' vote, here's what the NHL will look like next season:
|Pacific Division||Mid-West Division||Central Division||Atlantic Division|
|Anaheim Ducks||Chicago Blackhawks||Boston Bruins||Carolina Hurricanes|
|Calgary Flames||Colorado Avalanche||Buffalo Sabres||Columbus Blue Jackets|
|Edmonton Oilers||Dallas Stars||Detroit Red Wings||New Jersey Devils|
|Los Angeles Kings||Minnesota Wild||Florida Panthers||New York Islanders|
|Phoenix Coyotes||Nashville Predators||Montreal Canadiens||New York Rangers|
|San Jose Sharks||St. Louis Blues||Ottawa Senators||Philadelphia Flyers|
|Vancouver Canucks||Winnipeg Jets||Tampa Bay Lightning||Pittsburgh Penguins|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||Washington Capitals|
RALEIGH—Cam Ward won't be minding the Canes' net for a while.
In this lockout-shortened schedule, that means he could return sometime within the last couple weeks of the regular season that ends on April 27.
Meanwhile, Carolina has won three straight and looked good doing it. Going into tonight's home tilt with the Buffalo Sabres, the division-leading Canes have been bolstered by the almost simultaneous return of forwards Jeff Skinner and Tim Brent and defenders Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain and Joni Pitkanen.
Dan Ellis inherits the goalmouth for now. Ellis is 3-2-1 with a 2.53 goals-against average during his first season in Carolina. Justin Peters has scooted up the highway from the Charlotte Checkers' crease to back up Ellis. Peters has a middling 11-11-3 record with a 3.23 GAA in 28 career NHL games over the last three seasons.
It's a stiff test for the Canes who have been making a move to put distance between themselves and the other Southeast Division teams. Sunday's win over the Panthers was Carolina's first divisional win of the season in six games. Their homestand continues this week with visits from Montreal on Thursday and New Jersey on Saturday before three straight divisional games next week.