by Kate Shefte
The Carolina Hurricanes took down an opponent that, on paper, they didn’t stand a chance against – the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks. Carolina limped into the hostile confines of the HP Pavilion down a captain, a grinder veteran, and two starting defensemen, but held up against a team that has gone 23-2-3 at home so far this season. However, with this win came some horrifying news: Eric Staal went to the locker room for the second intermission and didn’t return. He has been smacked with another horribly vague “lower body” label and is questionable for Saturday at Phoenix.
The ‘Canes crawled back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits for the second game in a row. However, this time they held strong in the final minute and took it to overtime. Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu scored in the shootout and goaltender Michael Leighton, playing in relief of Cam Ward, stood on his head and turned away 37 shots in regulation and OT and two of three in the shootout.
(To put things in perspective, this was the first time the Sharks have dropped two in a row at home in over a year. Yeah.)
Oh, where to begin? There are so many plot lines to choose from. The Hurricanes’ supporting players had to band together and tough it out against the high-scoring Sharks without their captain and leading goal scorer. Ray Whitney, Leighton and Matt Cullen – who, up until a few games ago, was having a stinker or a season – carried the team on their shoulder pads to victory. Cullen, who has 11 points in 9 games, scored on a penalty shot just after San Jose jumped out to a two-goal lead. The call itself was questionable; Cullen was clearly hooked from behind while skating in alone, but he was not denied a good scoring chance. In any case, Cullen brought one of his vintage moves out of storage and beat Evgeni Nabokov cleanly. Later in the game, Cullen sent an absolutely breathtaking – no seriously, look for it on highlight reels – pass to a wide-open Ray Whitney to tie it up. Cullen had two Sharks defensemen on him, but passed the puck behind his back to Whitney at the right circle who knocked it home.
Leighton took over for Ward, who had started 17 consecutive games for the ‘Canes, and showed the same form he displayed in Albany last season against the far more talented Sharks. I didn’t think Ward played all that terribly against Vancouver, but clearly Maurice saw differently. However, it turned out to be the right choice as Leighton was the difference in this game.
Call-up Jakub Petruzalek, making his Hurricanes debut this season after Rod Brind’Amour went down with an injury, scored his first NHL point with an assist on Sergei Samsonov’s goal, which made the score 3-2. And it was a beauty. Petruzalek watched the incoming Samsonov from the boards and passed it right onto his moving stick. Samsonov deflected the puck neatly past Nabokov while being tugged at by a Sharks player.
Although Samsonov had a goal and the deciding tally in the shootout and Cullen and Leighton both made strong cases, the underrated Anton Babchuk was named the game’s first star after a stellar defensive effort. Babchuk played just under 26 minutes and blocked 6 shots.
Of course, the shootout must be addressed. The Hurricanes were so abysmal in the shootout last season that when the clock hit 0:00 after overtime, it was basically a death sentence. Maurice went with his hot hands: Ruutu, Cullen, and Samsonov, though none of the three have scored consistently mono-a-mono. Cullen’s tricksy moves didn’t work this time around, but Ruutu and Samsonov converted and Leighton took care of the rest. For once, the Hurricanes had all the momentum they could possibly have generated going into the SO and that was just the tonic they needed.
This was a throwaway game, but somehow the badly-depleted Hurricanes turned it into a match that could quite possibly turn the season around. They will put that to the test against the Coyotes, who are also gunning hard for a playoff spot, on Saturday at 9:00 EST.
(Carolina got its happy ending tonight, but hopefully Staal will be back against the Coyotes. Otherwise, the Hurricanes might be in deep six. Just throwing it out there.)