by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH— So. We’ve given this whole “losing” thing a fair trial…and I’m not sure about you guys, but I, for one, am not a fan.
It was inevitable. Cam Ward showed that he was, in fact, only human, and two nights after putting together a record-setting nine-goal shutout, the ‘Canes were lit up themselves for 5 goals by the Buffalo Sabres, who were hanging by a thread in the Eastern Conference playoff race. However, New York won and Montreal earned a point in OT, so Buffalo’s impressive effort was all for naught.
Eric Staal provided the only positive event of the night when he scored his 40th goal of the season and fourth in two games with a half minute remaining in the game. In just over two days, Staal’s season went from statistically unremarkable to actually quite impressive. Unless Rick Nash, Dany Heatley or Tomas Vanek make some magic in their last game, Staal will be one of six 40-goal scorers in the NHL this season.
“It’s not easy to score 40 goals in this league, and I’m excited about that,” Staal said. “But I’m more excited that we’re going to compete for the Stanley Cup again.”
This was the first truly tired, disorganized, uninspired effort we’ve seen from the ‘Canes in some time. The Hurricanes saw their nine-game winning streak and 12-game home winning streak come to an end. But there is a silver lining: at least this turned out to be infinitely better than last year's Fan Appreciation Night.
Fans finally saw Michael Leighton finally get some ice time – but not the way anyone wanted it to happen. Ward allowed a very uncharacteristic four goals on just 13 shots and was pulled in favor of Leighton midway through the second period, but none of the goals could really be considered his fault.
“That had nothing to do with Cam Ward but there was no sense, based on the way he’s played for us, to have him lose any confidence,” Mo said. “It wasn’t going to change where we were.”
The ‘Canes kept the zone well early but only managed two legitimate shots on goal, and they were half-hearted. Finally, Buffalo broke out, and Tuomo Ruutu was stuck as the lone man back. Tim Connolly sent a cross-ice pass to an open Jason Pominville, who took advantage of a sliding Cam Ward and ripped one top shelf.
The exact same thing almost happened the exact same way, but Dennis Seidenberg took out his man with a flying bear hug. If only a few more of those give-a-crap plays had occurred during the game, perhaps Carolina would have managed to score at least one goal in the first 59 minutes.
“We kind of expected this game to happen sooner or later,” Whitney said. “I guess it’s better to have it happen now than a week from now.”
Have you noticed? If Jussi Jokinen is at the net, he will almost always pass instead of shoot. He instead passed to The Wizard, who was standing right in a cluster of guys right in front of the net, but the puck soared up into the mesh.
Both goaltenders rolled around to keep the score low. Cam Ward had to fend off more tricky shots in the first period than in each of his last two starts combined. On the other end, Buffalo was playing tight defense and as a result the ‘Canes couldn’t get any traffic in front of Miller, but he was still forced to block a few good scoring chances from odd angles.
Matt Ellis corralled the puck and wrapped it around Cam Ward for the Sabres’ second goal. Ward made it there just a millisecond too late and the puck found its way under his pads.
Buffalo put the game out of reach after a turnover in front of the net led to a quick passing play and Jochen Hecht scored on Ward’s glove side. Somebody’s been reading their scouting reports.
The Sabres scored right off a face-off to make it 4-0 when Connolly caught a streaking Pominville again and he tapped it in right past left foot, just as the previous two goals were scored.
Daniel Paille administered a hard check on Rod Brind’Amour and his elbow came up ever so slightly. That was when all hell broke loose. Joe Corvo lost his cool demeanor for a moment and launched himself onto Paille. Brind’Amour came to Corvo’s defense and the scrum got fairly heated before the refs broke it up.
The referees were administering penalties to Hurricanes left and right, but no one happened to be looking when Niclas Wallin took a high stick to the face and had to leave the ice.
With six seconds remaining in the period, Joni Pitkanen decided to make a moronic move. Pitkanen flipped the puck into the air and watched it soar directly over the glass, almost as though he wanted an all-expenses paid trip to the box. The ‘Canes killed it off, partly because Buffalo didn’t look like they were actually trying anymore.
After that, Michael Leighton showed that he actually did remember how to tend goal. He made an excellent sliding chest pad save on a Sabre. Shortly after that, however, on a Carolina power play, Derek Roy was hooked down on a breakaway and received a penalty shot. Michael Leighton made himself as big as possible, awkwardly stretching himself out so that he looked like a bird (his one-on-one moves are often a mystery to me; see his shootout save “attempt” on Simon Gagne earlier this season) but Roy unfurled some sweet moves and sent it up high for Buffalo's first penalty shot goal of the season.
Staal finally mounted a comeback effort for the ‘Canes…with 28 seconds remaining in the game. Staal got his 40th, the second time he has hit that mark (both, not surprisingly, were in playoff seasons.) Whitney found Staal sulking near the net on the power play and set him up to spoil Miller’s shutout and give the fans one positive thing to ponder on the ride home.
Then there’s the most important implication of this game: how will this affect Ward’s confidence? Mo, for one, is pretty confident it won't.
“I’m not concerned based on Cam’s confidence,” Mo said simply.
Carolina will play in its final game of the season Saturday at 1 p.m. in New Jersey. To avoid the risk of throwing off Ward’s groove with an early start, Maurice strongly hinted that Leighton would be in net.