by Kate Shefte
This time, it was the Capitals that suffered a heartbreaking, late-game letdown. With the score tied at one late in the third, Carolina’s marquee names came up huge and scored two goals in a span of two minutes and seven seconds, giving the Hurricanes their second win in eight games and their first during the second coming of Paul Maurice.
Eric Staal scored the game-winner, his first since Nov. 21 against Phoenix, and Ray Whitney added his second of the night with an insurance marker. The ‘Canes snapped an eight game losing streak and crawled within four points of the Southeast-leading Capitals.
What a difference one game makes. The Hurricanes, who couldn’t score first, score more than two, or climb back into the game late did all three tonight. Oh, and backup goaltender Michael Leighton stopped “Alexander the Great” on a penalty shot. No biggie.
“It’s not a guy you want to give a penalty shot to,” Leighton said sardonically, “but sometimes you’d rather almost take the penalty so you can set it up and get ready for it.”
Ray Whitney scored his eighth of the season 13:18 into the first, snapping a 12-game streak in which Carolina gave up the first goal.
One of the bad things about these new all-black jerseys is that it’s easy to confuse a teammate with a ref. Coming up the boards on Theodore’s blocker side, Ruutu looked across the ice and saw who he thought was a teammate, but it was merely a zebra doing his job. His hand twitched like he wanted to pass it to him, but he mercifully stopped himself at the last second.
Leighton seemed warier of defensive zone faceoffs early after what happened last night. Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter ripped one from the faceoff circle to beat the netminder in overtime, and Leighton was not about to let that happen again.
Building on last night’s promising effort, the Hurricane clamped down defensively. With Michael Leighton down and out, lying on his side and leaving three quarters of the net wide open, and the Capitals swarming on a power play, the ‘Canes defense took care of business in a way that they haven’t all season – impressive, considering only three of them are NHL regulars.
With 1.2 seconds remaining on the clock in the second period, Joni Pitkanen hooked down Alex Ovechkin after the Russian superstar – and last year’s league-leading scorer – escaped on a shorthanded breakaway. Pitkanen made the right move, but he put one of the world’s most dangerous scorers one-on-one with Michael Leighton. Ovechkin skated in slowly and tried a few shifty moves on Leighton, but the 6’3 Leighton used his considerable wingspan to stop AO when he attempted to slip the puck in stick side. Instead of having their backs broken by a late tying goal, the Hurricanes went to the locker room with plentiful confidence (a word that keeps popping up in the postgame) and an energized crowd behind them.
The aforementioned zebras incurred the wrath of the crowd when, after a confrontation to the side of Carolina’s net, Tim Conboy was punched twice in the face by a Washington player and then received a high-stick to the nose. There was no call on the play, but minutes later Pitkanen was called for hooking.
68 seconds into the Pitkanen penalty, Ryan Bayda went off for delay of game and the Capitals were given nearly a minute of 5-on-3 hockey. Pitkanen’s penalty expired without incident, but before No. 25 could get back from the box, Niclas Backstrom tore up the ice and faked out Leighton. Leighton went down and Backstrom took aim at the water bottle on the roof of the net.
Once again, the Hurricanes finished the game with 5 defensemen. Anton Babchuk, one of the regulars that remain on Carolina’s back end, was clipped from behind while going for a puck to the right of Leighton and crumpled to the ice, writhing in pain. He was attended to by conditioning coach Pete Friesen, went straight back to the locker room with an “upper body injury” and did not return. He was seen with his arm in a sling after the game.
Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen…watch out, guys.
“The most dangerous job in America is playing defense for the Carolina Hurricanes right now,” Maurice said. “They’ve been dropping all over.”
Pitkanen lost his temper and hooked Sammy Lipisto, who hammed it up as best he could, spinning around and losing (i.e., throwing for dramatic effect) his helmet and a glove. The refs finally opted not to buy into Washington’s shtick and gave Lepisto an unsportsmanlike penalty for diving to match Pitkanen’s two minutes for tripping.
Eric Staal exacted revenge on the Capitals with four remaining in the game with a dramatic goal, using his long reach to take the puck from Sergei Samsonov behind the net surprise Washington’s Jose Theodore, who was looking the other way. Staal embarked on his signature genuflecting, fist-pumping, scream-filled goal celebration.
Maurice was wishing he hadn’t used his only time-out in the first period when the Hurricanes were pinned in their own zone for a full minute. When they finally got it out, Ray Whitney scored his second of the night after the puck popped out of a four-man scrum in front of the net and straight to him. He wristed it past a stunned Theodore to ice the game for the Hurricanes.
“We’ve seemed to put ourselves in that situation like that throughout the season in the third period – penalty trouble, five-on-threes,” Whitney said. “Tonight we just did a better job of not getting rattled.”
Ovechkin unleashed a powerful slapper feet away from Leighton with his team’s net empty and minutes left in the game, but the Carolina backup stood tall and absorbed the puck.
If ever the Hurricanes were going to beat the injury-ravaged Capitals, this would have been it. Regardless, this was an incredibly important game for the Hurricanes, as it may give them the “confidence” (there’s that word again…) they need against the tough opponents they will face later this month.
The ‘Canes will spend the rest of the week on a two-game road trip. They will finish their season series against Philadelphia on Thursday before taking on the Atlantic Conference-leading Rangers on Saturday.