RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—When you hang a fresh January on the kitchen wall and toss the old calendar in the trash, you hope that the forgettable parts of the old year somehow go in the landfill too.
But in their 2012 debut, the Carolina Hurricanes look agonizingly the same as they did in 2011. Giving up leads instead of building on them. Hoping the other team won’t score rather than ensuring it. And losing.
John Tavares assisted on all three regulation goals for the Isles, including a magical pass to Kyle Okposo to tie the game with 90 seconds left. Nabokov out-dueled Cam Ward in the shootout, allowing only Jussi Jokinen’s first-round goal before shutting down Eric Staal and LaRose.
Anthony Stewart, Brandon Sutter, and LaRose notched goals for the Canes, who lost leads of 2-1 and 3-2. Ward compiled 33 saves but let in two of three shootout attempts.
There weren’t many butts in the seats at the start of this one on a frigid Raleigh weeknight. The clacks of passed pucks on stick blades, if not their echoes, were clearly audible up on press row. The players somnambulated out of their tunnels as well, but they woke up quickly as both teams tallied in the first four minutes and change.
RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—A month ago, the Canes would have folded. But in the last home game of the year, they didn't. And the captain led the way.
"It was all about our leadership tonight. Sutter, Staal, and Ward—those guys," coach Kirk Muller noted after the comeback win. "Staal was the best player on the ice tonight and there are a lot of people in our room who are happy for him."
Staal has labored through a miserable season, skating under high expectations that seemed many nights to weigh quite literally on his shoulders. His final line against Toronto reads two goals, an assist, and five shots on goal—a dominant, and perhaps emergent, game. But the truth is that he's been reassembling his game one piece at a time for more than a month now, and finding his way onto the scoresheet more consistently over the last two weeks. He started in the face-off circle, worked harder backchecking and fighting for pucks in the corners and, buoyed by occasional stints as a winger rather than a center, started showing flashes of speed and creativity in the offensive zone.
Staal's breakaway snapshot goal midway through the third period may have snapped the last piece of his game into place.
FSN SOUTH (TV)—Justin Peters has some new bruises.
Carolina, which had beaten the New Jersey Devils the night before on Boxing Day in Raleigh, saw its modest win streak halted at two games. But Cam Ward, who sat out the second half of the back-to-back games in Pittsburgh, still has a goal-scoring streak. The last Canes player to touch the puck before Ilya Kovalchuk's desperation pass skittered all the way down the ice into his team's empty net, Ward became the first goalie in franchise history—and just the tenth in league history—to be credited with a goal.
But even that kind of luck wouldn't have helped the Canes in Pittsburgh. Steve Sullivan's power-play goal 1:18 into the third broke a 1-1 tie, and Pascal Dupuis scored 70 seconds later for a lead the Canes couldn't surmount. Mustering only 18 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina looked like a team that had played elsewhere the night before, facing a team that had enjoyed two off-nights at home.
Tim Brent and Tuomo Ruutu notched goals for the Canes, extending Ruutu's goal streak to three games. James Neal and Jordan Staal also scored for the Penguins.
Neal, who potted his 21st, is just one goal off the league lead. Two assists by Neal's linemate Evgeni Malkin put him just two points off the league scoring lead. With Chris Kunitz, they harried the Canes all night.
RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Cam Ward was talking, but you couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Clearly, the guys are excited,” deadpanned the unflappable goalie.
The Hurricanes gave themselves an early Christmas present Friday night, topping the Ottawa Senators 2-1 on an overtime goal from Tuomo Ruutu. Ward, despite hardly seeing action for the first half of the contest, maintained his trademark calm to stop 22 shots.
But his teammates weren’t calm. They were laughing and shouting and joyful. And beneath that, relieved.
This game could have been a repeat of Wednesday’s emotional sinkhole, in which the Phoenix Coyotes overturned a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 win. As they have on more than a few nights this season, the Canes went into a shell the moment the Coyotes caught a break. When Carolina failed to dent Ottawa’s goalie Craig Anderson during 1:52 of a two-man advantage in the first period, and then gave up a tying goal to Filip Kuba despite outshooting the Senators 19-6, they could have buckled.
But they didn’t. Not this night. And during a season that hasn’t gone how the Canes had imagined it, that’s worth celebrating.
RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—In the past, packs of coyotes hunted the American prairie, swarming their prey. Today, they have adapted to scavenge off the humans who’ve encroached upon their habitat, rummaging dumpsters for suburban food scraps to survive. It’s a lot easier to pick a chicken carcass out of the trash than it is to bring down a deer.
Unfortunately, in this extended metaphor, the Canes are the dumpster and its decaying buffet. And while Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart are not exactly a moo shu pork takeout carton and a Chik-fil-a to-go bag with a few errant waffle fries left at the bottom, this team is looking more like pitched-out leftovers as the losses mount.
And hockey’s actual equivalent of coyotes attended the game in abundance: scouts.
Ten teams sent representatives to the game, looking to scavenge the Carolina lineup after the holiday trade blackout lifts on Dec. 27. True, they could have been there to scope out the Phoenix players, but the scratch-and-claw Coyotes are subsisting just beneath the Western Conference playoff line. The Canes, however, have set up a sofa bed and ping-pong table in the Eastern Conference basement.
The head-scratcher is that when you place the lineups of these two teams next to each other, there’s hardly a difference. Both are small-market clubs with budgets near the league’s salary floor. Both ice only one real scoring line. Both piece together rosters with second-tier free agents and minor-league call-ups. But one team came away with a win. And the other kept scratching its head in frustration.
RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Cam Ward didn't just take a goal away from Keith Ballard. He took a piece of his soul.
With just over six minutes remaining in the Hurricanes' 4-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks, Ward flung his glove across the gaping net to snare Ballard's point-blank shot. And he rolled on top of the rebound chance for good measure.
Coach Kirk Muller, with eyebrows raised and head cocked, had stronger words. "I was pretty amazed at that save. That was the play of the game, to me."
Drayson Bowman netted his first two goals of the season and the newly acquired Jaroslav Spacek tallied as well in the win, which leapfrogged the Canes over the New York Islanders, out of the Eastern Conference cellar. Tuomo Ruutu added a goal and an assist as Carolina unleashed a 41-shot barrage on Cory Schneider after managing only 19 shots the game before in Toronto.
Carolina's depleted lineup was the pre-game story. Leading scorer Jeff Skinner, top-scoring defenseman Joni Pitkanen, and blueliner Jay Harrison are all out indefinitely with concussions. But a spirited first-period fight, an improving power play, and contributions from youngsters like Bowman brushed concussion concerns aside for an evening as the Canes erased a 2-0 deficit to win their first game in nine tries when tied after two periods.
Tomas Kaberle, we hardly knew ye.
And even yet, we knew ye too much.
But the Canes won't even mind if the door hits him on the way out.
This isn't so much a trade as a salary dump. If Kaberle could have been sewed into a burlap sack and dumped in the Neuse River without legal repercussions, general manager Jim Rutherford would have done it already. That he could move Kaberle and his huge contract for a passable veteran in Spacek, who comes off the Canes' books at the end of the season, could vault Rutherford into consideration for GM of the year.
Kaberle made a name for himself as a power play specialist in Toronto, and was one of several ex-Maple Leafs who had played under recently fired coach Paul Maurice in his tenure behind Toronto's bench.
But his ability seemed to vanish the moment he pulled on a Bruins sweater at last season's trading deadline. Although he was part of a Stanley Cup-winning team, he tumbled down the Boston depth chart as they advanced through the playoffs, becoming an afterthought.
Rutherford had hoped he was signing the Toronto hot rod, but he got the Boston lemon. Kaberle was unwilling to skate hard, take open power play point shots, or go anywhere near the corners or boards. In Maurice's last game as Canes coach, Kaberle was a healthy scratch.
“This deal brings a solid, veteran defenseman to our team for the remainder of this season and allows us more flexibility with our roster moving forward,” Rutherford said, in a team press release. There's no word on whether Rutherford was dancing a jig while making that statement.
Spacek had three assists in 12 games with the Canadiens this season, missing time with an upper-body injury. He will not be expected to do much other than not be Tomas Kaberle for the remainder of the year. As a 13-year veteran, he will bring some experience to the defense, which Carolina needs.
With the unexpected emergence of rookie Justin Faulk, who's younger even than Jeff Skinner, and the scoring response that Jamie McBain has made under new coach Kirk Muller, the Canes are going young on the back end. Derek Joslin rounds out the youth movement. Veterans Joni Pitkanen and Jay Harrison are currently on the shelf with injuries—Pitkanen for the second time this season—leaving the Canes blueline short on the tooth but loaded with promise that will now get plenty of ice time to develop.
Carolina broke its seven-game losing streak on Wednesday with a 5-3 victory in Edmonton—Muller's first win in five games since replacing Maurice. Young legs skate faster, which fits Muller's up-tempo style. McBain has three goals and two assists in his last three games since being a healthy scratch to showcase Kaberle for this trade.
Carolina continues their Canadian swing tonight in Winnipeg, and Spacek will be in the lineup.
Goodbye, Panthers and Lightning. Hello, Penguins and Flyers. The Carolina Hurricanes will have different division rivals as early as next season.
The National Hockey League's Board of Governors ratified a realignment plan on Tuesday at their annual meeting in Pebble Beach, CA that both acknowledges the past and looks to the future. Twenty-six of the league's 30 owners okayed a four-conference configuration of teams that corrects for geographical oddities that team relocations and league expansion have caused over the years.
The top four teams in each conference would make the playoffs. The first two rounds of the playoffs would stay within each conference. The final-four conference winners would be re-seeded based on their regular-season records for the final two rounds of the playoffs.
This playoff tournament sheds the idea of east and west. In other words, the Canes could potentially meet current Eastern Conference teams like Boston or Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals.
RBC CENTER (RALEIGH)—The big stars set up the goals. The grinders scored them. And the penalty-killers finished off the last frantic minutes. That’s one of many narratives that a good team can follow to win a hockey game.
It is not, however, a chapter that the Carolina Hurricanes can author right now, as they turn the pages of their horror story of a season.
Former Cane Craig Adams tallied a goal and an assist, unheralded forwards Aaron Asham and Pascal Dupuis scored 1:27 apart during the third period, and Brent Johnson notched 30 saves, none more important that the last, desperate stop of a Jussi Jokinen shot with 17 seconds left and the Penguins down three men.
When you face the Pittsburgh Penguins, you first must deal with their high-end talent at center. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal make the Penguins a nightmare for coaches to match up against. And a team like the Hurricanes—one that does not shell out the cash for all-stars—basically has to choose which vial of poison to drink.
No configuration of the Canes roster exists to deal with a team like the Penguins. As soon as your best checking line has battled one of their lines to a draw, they throw another one of those lines over the boards. Crosby skates off and suddenly you have Malkin jumping on. Malkin skates off and Jordan Staal is rocketing around the ice. And in a sport where most of the games are decided by one goal, it means that you lose to this team most of the time, because rolling those lines for three periods eventually makes that difference.
RBC CENTER (RALEIGH)—After losing his NHL coaching debut, Kirk Muller was all smiles.
But with bloodshot eyes.
"We didn't get the bounce, but they played hard."
Shawn Matthias, however, did get the bounce, banking a shot off Cam Ward's side to break a 1-1 tie with just over three minutes remaining and added an empty-net goal for Florida. Jose Theodore saved all but one of Carolina's 27 shots on goal.
Jeff Skinner tallied the Canes' only goal, his 10th of the season. Ward stopped 18 of 20 Florida shots, including a penalty shot by Jack Skille early in the third period. Carolina failed to score on four power plays in the game.
Expectations are high that Muller can do something about Carolina's impotence with the man advantage. His unit in Montreal was always quick and intense, something that a Canes power play could never have been accused of being. Still, Muller kept his finger firmly on a positive note.
"We gotta work on it. I want to be positive, but there's lots of things we can do to work on it and change it. You know, even if you don't score on it, your power play can really give you momentum. And the tough thing tonight is that five-on-five we were going so well, but the power play didn't create any momentum for us. We need more net presence. We're really out of synch. But that's stuff we can work on and it'll get better."