by Kate Shefte
After a thrilling first period, the ‘Canes phoned it in en route to a 2-0 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. Two breakaway goals in the first half of the first period was all the offense it took to send the Thrashers to their fourth straight loss. Cam Ward turned away each of the 19 shots he faced for his third shutout of the season and the ‘Canes pelted Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen with 40.
Matt Cullen got the ball rolling (puck sliding?) when he scored the Hurricanes’ second shorthanded goal of the season in as many games The goal, which came at 7:41 in the first period, gave Cullen goals in back-to-back games. After Eric Staal took a tripping penalty, the Hurricanes took off on a penalty kill that strongly resembled a power play - on a very, very good day - and the Thrashers were helpless to stop Cullen as he charged in on a breakaway and put the puck past Lehtonen. Cullen had been getting these shorthanded opportunities all season, but this newfound confidence on the PK – along with some strong chemistry with Chad LaRose – is allowing him to finally bury those chances.
“It’s game seven without the pressure right now, that’s how we’re playing,” LaRose said. “We know this is our push time.”
Though the ‘Canes were outshooting the Thrashers, 19-4, the home team still held onto a tenuous one-goal lead. Ray Whitney scored on another breakaway toward the end of the first period. Man-of-the-hour Matt Cullen sprung Whitney from the boards and “The Wizard” walked in alone. He used a few of the nifty moves that strangely never work in the shootout for his No. 16 of the season.
During the second period, both teams seemed to forget that there was a game going on. Aside from a dangerous-looking cross check that sent Tuomo Ruutu to the penalty box, not much happened. Cam Ward stood his ground when the Thrashers caught the ‘Canes snoozing and earned his second shutout in five games two nights after his 100th NHL victory.
“We were on the attack for the most part and Cam made some nice saves when he had to and kept it at that two-goal margin,” Staal said.
Staal should start buying lottery tickets, if he hasn’t already. The proud owner of a 300+ game ironman streak has had more than his share of good fortune over the past four seasons, narrowly escaping injury after a number of hits. Staal was knocked down after a scoring attempt and was pinned under a Thrasher as he slid forward. His head caught on the net and he got up gingerly, but never missed a shift.
Though he showed signs of life earlier this week at New York, Rod Brind’Amour posted a season low 13:10 of ice time tonight. He also hasn’t scored a goal since before Christmas. The ‘Canes captain was mostly invisible tonight, but he set up Chad LaRose for what would have been a stunner right between the circles in front of the net. Lehtonen absorbed the shot.
The third period continued in similar fashion. It got a little chippy toward the end, but the ‘Canes applied so much pressure that the Thrashers’ coaching staff couldn’t pull Lehtonen. After one last monster save on Samsonov, it was done.
A comforting Southeastern homestand behind them, the Hurricanes will head off on a treacherous three-game western road swing. After facing the slumping – but still very talented – Vancouver Canucks, the ‘Canes will see the leaders of the Western Conference, the San Jose Sharks, and the upstart Phoenix Coyotes.