It’s safe to say that I’m thankful the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t make the playoffs this season. In fact, that’s about the only thing that’s safe about the National Hockey League right now.
Coming home after a poetry reading last night—the fire and brimstone fury of Amiri Baraka—I flipped on the television to catch whatever first-round playoff action might be on. The eight opening series of the Stanley Cup tournament are the bounty that every hockey fan has been anticipating for months. Regardless of the match-ups, you tune in because this is what hockey is all about. The quest for the Cup. Cue the trumpet fanfare and roll the footage of hockey’s silver grail turning slowly in a spotlight.
But as my television screen came to life from darkness, I didn’t see the graceful action of game play. No skaters darting about like a school of fish to contest the puck. No goalies flashing their pads or gloving point shots.
And I saw Phoenix forward Raffi Torres looking like the cat that ate the canary—or in this case, the Coyote that concussed the Blackhawk—sitting on the bench, unpenalized, waiting for his next shift.
Soon the replays came, from every available angle, both in slow motion and at game speed. At center ice, Hossa touches the puck on to a teammate, skates a half stride, then curls a tight pirouette. As Hossa comes out of the turn, Torres rockets into view at tremendous speed, leaps at Hossa, leading with his shoulder, thrusting his shoulder upward as a soccer player would to head a ball.
RALEIGH, NC—When a team is mathematically eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs, newspapers put a lower-case “e” in front of the team’s name in the NHL standings.
The Carolina Hurricanes don’t have their “e” yet, but somewhere a typesetter has taken it out of the drawer and polished its leaden face.
Still, there are five games left, including home games Friday and Saturday against Winnipeg and New Jersey, and there are good reasons to go to them.
A win over the Jets on Friday would leapfrog the Canes into third in the Southeast Division. Although this isn’t much consolation for missing the playoff cut, it’s something worth acknowledging. Carolina’s been in the division’s basement almost all year. Beat Winnipeg and they tromp up the stairs to the guest bedroom.
PNC ARENA, RALEIGH—I am skilled, as it turns out, at avoiding jinxes.
In order to snap my team out of a bad stretch of play in a game, I can sense just when to change clothing or turn my jersey inside-out. To fend off a favorite player’s injury in his first game back after a long concussion absence, I recently ate a hard-boiled egg while doing a handstand, knowing that such an absurd act would prompt the hockey gods to protect his noggin from further harm.
How, then, to approach the description of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 3-1 victory Wednesday night over the division-leading Florida Panthers? The primary storyline of this, the Canes’ fourth straight win, is obvious: the team’s now only five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games remaining in the regular season. But, surely, even mentioning the playoffs at such a fragile moment would be a terrible jinx.
The Canes would essentially have to win out the rest of their schedule and hope for each of Washington, Winnipeg, and the streaking Buffalo Sabres to drop at least half their remaining games. Breathe a word about that and its mathematical possibility tumbles off the skate blade it’s balanced on. No jinx.
After all, there are plenty of other secondary storylines to yammer about after this win.
Before you click away elsewhere, take a quick look at the Carolina Hurricanes’ roster. And, as you read it, refresh the page a few times. Chances are fair that it might change before your eyes.
The trade deadline approacheth.
Another name might vanish though. I’m actually hurrying to write this and get it posted before something happens. General manager Jim Rutherford, between presumed gulps of an energy drink, could be typing up his third press release of the day right now. In addition to the Gleason announcement, Riley Nash was recalled today from the Charlotte Checkers. Sure, not a big deal. It’s Nash’s second cup of coffee this season. And he’s probably just taking the spot that Zac Dalpe vacated when he was sent down a week ago.
But it could also foreshadow a roster forward’s departure, possibly Tuomo Ruutu, whose contract expires at the end of the season. Ruutu leads the Canes with 15 goals and has been playing his guts out for months. Any team with hopes of going deep in the playoffs would love to have his mix of grit and skill.
Unfortunately, the Canes are not one of those teams.
This past weekend’s National Hockey League All-Star break provides the last pause before the spring playoff rush. It’s a time for teams to take stock of where they are in the standings, to decide if their play thus far merits improving their rosters before the Feb. 27 trading deadline or if they should dump pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and prospects. In short, it is when teams become either buyers or sellers.
RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Jussi Jokinen fished the puck out of the net. With a flick of Jerome Samson’s wrist, the two-dollar disk had instantly become the most valuable object in the rink.
Stepping over vanquished Flyers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Jokinen delivered the puck to Samson who, called up from the Charlotte Checkers Monday night, had just scored his first NHL goal.
The ritual goes like this. Even as the goal horn is sounding, a veteran teammate retrieves the puck. He gives it to the breathless scorer after the on-ice hugs have finished. Handling the puck like a lump of radiant plutonium, the scorer tilts it gently into the cupped palms of one of the trainers on the bench. Quickly, a stripe of athletic tape is wrapped around the otherwise anonymous puck so it doesn’t get mixed up and lost. In shaky capital letters, the trainer writes the scorer’s name and “first NHL goal” around the puck’s equator with a magic marker.
“It took longer than I thought,” Samson noted calmly with the slight lilt of a French-Canadian. “I’ve been scoring in the AHL for the last couple of years.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time—four or five months. I came here in training camp with the mentality of making this team right off the bat. It didn’t happen. So I went down [to Charlotte] and did what I had to do. And I finally got the call last night. It was a long drive—two-and-a-half hours, by myself. The butterflies were already starting last night. But as I stepped on the ice, it was still the same game, so I just tried to do my things out there.”
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.