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.
FOX SPORTS CAROLINAS (TV)—Players switch teams all the time in hockey. Free agents put themselves on the open market in droves every summer. Teams toss prospects over the fence in exchange for draft picks. At the trading deadline (on April 3, this year) it’s not uncommon for a player to change cities and then play his old team within a week. It’s the business, players say.
Hopefully Staal’s reunion goes better than Semin’s.
Semin was booed every time he touched the puck on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. The Caps’ Troy Brouwer had fired up the negativity by dissing Semin’s work ethic to reporters on Monday.
“Some nights you didn't even know if he was going to come to the rink,” Brouwer griped. “It's tough to play alongside guys like those because you don't know what you're going to get out of them.”
Well, Semin is the fifth-leading scorer in Caps franchise history. But certainly, Brouwer’s 50-goal seasons must be imminent.
The negative vibes didn’t appear to affect Semin’s game much, but Braden Holtby, the Caps’ netminder, did. Holtby’s 33 saves kept the scoresheet clean. The Russian finished with four shots on goal, two misses and a -1. One of those shots was a shorthanded breakaway when the game was still scoreless, but Holtby parried Semin’s wrist shot with his glove. The Verizon Center crowd would have made an interesting noise had that shot gone in.
PNC ARENA—Kirk Muller is a ruthlessly positive man. If you fell down the stairs, he would shout down at you, “Now you don’t have to dust.”
But after last night’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, in which Cam Ward looked below average, Muller sounded like he was trying convince himself about his starting goaltender.
Thanks, coach. But this is his second straight game in which he allowed three goals the third period. Isn’t that a problem?
“I think he was hoping to come back with a big game after the last game in Montreal. But we win as a team and lose as a team and we just didn’t close the door at the end as a group.”
So coach, will we see Dan Ellis in net Saturday night against the Lightning?
“I’ll generally sleep on it tonight and come back tomorrow. It’s a new day. I thought we had a good game tonight. It’s not all down and negative. And we’ve got a big game coming up. So I’ll talk to the coaches and sleep on it tonight and make a decision tomorrow or the following day.”
In the peculiar language of coaches, that’s about as definitive a “yes” as you’re going to get. And truthfully, the Canes are still in first place in their division even after these losses.
FOX SPORTS CAROLINAS (TV)—Remember grumbling about the Hurricanes a couple weeks ago? In a word, they were middling. They'd win one and then lose one, very Jekyll and Hyde.
It turns out that they just needed a little trip.
The trip started off with a familiar ring, though—a gutsy 5-3 loss in Philadelphia. Backup goaltender Dan Ellis, fresh off a shutout of Ottawa in Raleigh, earned a second consecutive start, raising murmurs about the depth chart in net. But Ellis gave way to Cam Ward after 40 minutes, and Ward's been in net ever since.
PNC ARENA—The first time the little boy threw the hat, it barely left his hand. The second time, held aloft by his dad, he bounced it off the top of the glass and it fell back in his arms. Finally he threw harder and got it onto the ice.
Third time’s a charm. Just ask Eric Staal.
“I wanted the win more but once you get the puck on your stick and there’s no goalie, you always want to make sure you cash in,” a smiling Staal said afterwards amid the bedlam of a locker room that was both celebrating and packing up gear. The Canes complete a home-and-home series in Buffalo on Friday night.
The big guns were big guns and the role players played their roles. Jeff Skinner added a pair of goals and Justin Faulk scored shorthanded. Zac Dalpe, Joni Pitkanen and Jordan Staal each had a pair of assists. Even Bobby Sanguinetti, the young defenseman who had struggled throughout the first two games, made nice plays.
Cam Ward found his form in goal, counting several old-school standup saves among his 30 stops on the night.
PNC ARENA—In 1944, the poet William Carlos Williams published a crucial book called “The Wedge.” Wartime conservation had shut down his regular publisher, New Directions, so the tiny Cummington Press brought it out in an edition of 380, which was all the paper they could get their mitts on during the war. Williams’ famed preface opens with a blunt acknowledgement of the international—and individual—situation: “The War is the first and only thing in the world today.”
Paint it over the locker room doorways. Tape it on the weight room ceiling over the bench press.
Fans certainly know that sentence. They chanted it during the third period of the Canes’ 4-1 home-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Except, translated into the language of competitive frustration and economic hardship, it sounded like boos.
Sports is not an escape from daily life anymore. There will be no patience while the multi-millionaires figure their game out. They work for us, after all.
Back in the early weeks of the lockout in September, fans sided with the players. Hockey fans are overwhelmingly workers, not captains of industry. So: screw the owners, the players actually sweat and hit and play the games; pay them. Even well-heeled fans like to adopt hockey’s blue-collar identity. Though very few of us pull on work gloves and shape raw materials into goods anymore, we still ascribe labor’s nobility to our hockey players.
But as ignominious months ticked off, and especially as the scheduled start of the regular season passed, that nobility drained away. November’s near-resolution was torturous. It broke that nobility. These guys weren’t workers like us anymore.
FSN CAROLINAS (TV)—We waited through a four-month lockout for this?
The Carolina Hurricanes opened the shortened 2013 season with a whimper, surrendering four first-period goals in a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. Mercifully, this was Florida’s home opener, so Canes fans didn’t have to pay for tickets to see their team’s meager display.
Jonathan Huberdeau, playing in his first NHL game, scored in the opening minutes of the game, notching two assists before it was done. Brian Campbell put a puck over each of Cam Ward’s shoulders and Alexei Kovalev—the 39-year-old Russian whom many figured was out of hockey—added a goal and two assists.
Patrick Dwyer had the Canes’ sole tally. Cam Ward lasted a period. Dan Ellis replaced him after the first intermission and surrendered only Kovalev’s trickster goal.
Anyone who took chemistry in high school knows that sometimes, when you pour the chemicals together, nothing happens. That was the case for Canes coach Kirk Muller’s line combinations on Saturday night. Instead of assembling two lines entirely of high-end talent, he mixed one green winger in with two veteran stars on the top two lines. It didn’t really work.