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.
Riley Nash also scored a couple minutes into the third to give the Canes a lead. Tuomo Ruutu, who missed most of the season recovering from offseason surgery, finally looked like his old, reckless self, barging behind the Penguins’ net to cancel out a Sutter faceoff win and getting the puck out front for the backhand score by Nash.
But despite missing injured stars Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh battled the entire game and their skill players took advantage of the stray Canes mistake to put pucks behind Peters. Pascal Dupuis had a pair of assists and an empty-net goal.
Carolina consistently had trouble in their half of the neutral zone, as Pittsburgh’s quick transition from defense to offense startled Peters. Late in the first period, the Canes were skating out of their zone and tried a diagonal pass across the ice. But Jokinen leapt into the lane and backhanded the puck back into the Carolina zone in a heartbeat. Brenden Morrow caught it, turned a surprised Justin Faulk inside-out in the high slot, and lifted a shot over Peters’ blocker that bounced off the underside of the crossbar and in. If you had blinked, you’d have missed the entire play.
A similar play gave Pittsburgh the decisive lead. This time it was new Penguin Jarome Iginla collecting an ill-advised Alexander Semin pass at center ice, curling on a dime and firing at a scrambling Peters. Evgeni Malkin pitchforked the rebound in with a one-handed thrust of his stick.
Truly, Carolina began losing this game during warmups. Dan Ellis, scheduled to start, sustained an injury and tabbed Justin Peters to fill in. Aside from a wonderfully nimble move to absorb a Pascal Dupuis one-timer late in the second period of a tie game, Peters looked a bit harried by the other 32 of Pittsburgh’s shots.
The home squad did welcome a pair of key players back from injury. Faulk returned to the blueline after a nine-game absence and immediately looked like the team’s best defender. Tasked with holding Malkin’s line in check, Faulk anticipated passes between the reigning league MVP and Iginla, lifting sticks and generally diluting the chemistry.
Semin also returned after missing two games “with an upper body concern” but it seemed like he came back too early. Particularly reluctant to unleash his wrist shot, Semin repeatedly passed off to linemate Eric Staal in prime shooting situations. Each time resulted in no shot on goal. Their line, however, cycled the puck mercilessly in the Pittsburgh zone throughout the game.
The Canes travel to Washington to meet the red-hot Capitals on Thursday. They return home Saturday night to host the Bruins. Only four home games remain in the season.