by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—A charged, playoff-like atmosphere, a 2-1 decision, excellent goaltending at both ends, Buffalo fans being escorted away from the game…it was just like old times at the RBC Center. Cam Ward stopped 36 shots and the Hurricanes walked away with the extra point as a result of Jussi Jokinen’s shootout brilliance. The ‘Canes needed to win this one in regulation to jump ahead of Buffalo in the standings, but instead pulled into a tie for eighth place. During the regular season, games played act as the first tie-breaker, and Buffalo has one game in hand.
You have to give the ‘Canes credit for being committed to their efforts, win or lose. If they win, it’s often by several goals, but if they lose, it’s a blowout. The last time a game made it to overtime was Feb. 5 at San Jose, and aside from Tuesday’s 2-goal differential, all of the games were decided by a three-goal margin or more.
Ward was pulled after the first period against Ottawa but turned it around with a razor-sharp performance against Buffalo, especially early when the ‘Canes couldn’t get it out of their own end. Ward turned aside eight of the game’s first nine shots on goal.
Toni Lydman and Patrick Kaleta took back-to-back penalties midway through the first, giving the Hurricanes 40 seconds of 5-on-3, which they promptly wasted. Most of the time on the two-man advantage was spent in the ‘Canes’ own end.
“It wasn’t pretty at times, but it was very much a playoff game,” Maurice said.
Some barbs were thrown around after the last time regarding the Jumbotron operators’ catchphrase for Jussi Jokinen (“He’s no Jokinen!”) but the creative team had some great ones tonight regarding the city of Buffalo. “As part of President Obama’s stimulus plan, America offered Buffalo to Canada. Canada politely refused,” was the joke that got the biggest rise out of the crowd.
Patrick Kaleta finally broke his team’s goose egg at 12:43 in the second period. Kaleta lifted the puck over a down-and-out Cam Ward for his fourth of the season. The Buffalo fan base in Raleigh roared almost as loud as the Hurricanes’ own.
The ‘Canes hit heavy metal right out of the gate in the third period and Anton Babchuk, who scored the first goal against Ottawa on Saturday, had his shot turned aside by Lalime’s blocker. Seconds after Buffalo’s Jaroslav Spacek went down and linked back to the dressing room, Babchuk let another one of his 100 mph slappers fly and it soared by Lalime. Michael Ryan and Eric Staal had the assists.
Ward had some funny things to say about Babchuk’s sizzling slapshots after the game.
“I just stand up straight-legged in practice (when he shoots),” Ward said. “There is no way I’m going down on my knees, because I’ve had one of those go off my head and it is not fun. I sometimes wonder why I signed up for this position. When it’s a one-timer and he can get it off, he has to have one of the hardest shots in the league.”
Staal zoomed in on the right side with blazing speed and looked like he would blow the game wide open, but Lydman cut off his pass and the game remained tied.
With less than 12 minutes left in the third, Kaleta flew out of nowhere and delivered a crushing blow to Rod Brind’Amour while the ‘Canes captain wasn’t looking and received two minutes for charging. Buffalo fans sitting behind the penalty box threw their drinks on the refs and players and were subsequently escorted out of the game. Brind’Amour returned to the bench no worse for wear, but later went back to the dressing room for a few minutes. Maurice said he would probably be fine.
(Speaking of Brind’Amour, fans might be interested to know that Roddy no longer has the worst plus-minus in the league! That title was joyfully handed off to Brandon Witt of the league-worst New York Islanders, whose -30 surpassed Brind’Amour’s -29.)
The Hurricanes finally started showing signs of life after Spacek went down, but their power play unit was not keeping up with the momentum. Maurice called his time-out after Paul Gaustad took a hooking penalty with six minutes remaining in the third, but the ‘Canes couldn’t convert again. The team ultimately went 0-6 on the power play.
Ward stopped a blistering shot with two minutes left. A Sabres player sneaked in at the left circle with three ‘Canes “otherwise engaged,” and Ward stood tall when it mattered most. The game slid into overtime, where the ‘Canes were outshot 4-1. Buffalo executed a 3-on-1 during the waning seconds of OT but passed one too many times and sent the puck wide.
The shootout commenced, and the ‘Canes opted to go first. Ruutu tried his hand first and tried to five-hole it, but Lalime absorbed the puck. Ales Kotalik attempted some tricky stick work on Ward, but to no avail. Shootout specialist Jussi Jokinen hadn’t had the opportunity to display his skills for Carolina since he joined up, and he didn’t disappoint. He slowed down almost to a stop and faked out Lalime, then fired it by him. RBC Center patrons quickly had no doubts about the deservedness of Jokinen’s spot at the top of the NHL all-time shootout conversion list. It will be on YouTube eventually, and when it is, I suggest you look it up.
“I spent the last summer practicing those,” Jokinen said. “You have to forget everything and just do the same thing you have done thousands of times in practice.”
Jason Pominville’s shot glanced off the crossbar. Matt Cullen, the final shooter, had the opportunity to put the game away and slowed down and tried out a few of Jokinen’s moves. His shot was swatted away, and he looked skyward in frustration.
Tim Connolly’s shot was blocked by Cam Ward, who showed an uncharacteristic moment of jubilation with a head bob after the final save. This exit differed greatly from last game, when he smashed his stick on the post in anger after allowing a third goal late in the first period. He received the game’s first star.
In a strange statistical quirk, three defensemen had more shots on goal than the rest of the team combined, which means a lot of the ‘Canes’ best attempts wound up being from far out. Joe Corvo and Dennis Seidenberg had six apiece while Babchuk tallied five.
The ‘Canes will take to the road and try and defend their newly-acquired playoff spot. The team sits a mere two points out of fifth place but every team around it except for the Rangers has games in hand. The ‘Canes will take on the Thrashers on Saturday and the Capitals on Tuesday before returning to the RBC Center next Friday.