RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—The Carolina Hurricanes fought hard in Game 6 for the tie and managed to send it back to Newark. Once there, they’ll be able to visit an old friend: Game 7. New Jersey captain Jamie Langenbrunner returned from injury to play in his first since Game 1, but his Devils looked slow and listless after Carolina seized momentum and the home team danced to a 4-0 victory.
Here’s a curious little twist: after going down 3-1 to the Rangers, the Washington Capitals pulled even this morning, so both Southeast division teams are headed to Game 7’s. Staal took over third place in all-time playoff scoring in just two postseason campaigns and Ward responded to his hero’s Thursday shutout with one of his own, making 28 saves in the win.
How do you ignite a stagnant top line? Easy. Add Chad LaRose, water, and stir. The ‘Canes put the team’s leading scorer at the time (I can’t believe I just typed that) on the top line and it paid dividends. Mo wasn’t pulling the press’ chain when he said he was going to tinker with his lines before the game. Anton Babchuk was back after serving as a healthy scratch and Samsonov returned from a short absence due to injury. Patrick Eaves was on the second line with Brind’Amour and Samsonov to start the game and LaRose deservedly jumped onto the top line with Staal and Whitney. Whitney factored in on every goal and he and his linemates combined for nine points.
“This was as loose as the locker room has been this series,” Whitney said after the game.
The ‘Canes had several gift-wrapped chances on an early power play and caught Brodeur down and out multiple times. But the Devils literally piled on the ice in front of him and the puck stayed out of harm’s way.
With the way the ‘Canes were playing, it was only a matter of time before they converted. Ray Whitney put the ‘Canes on the scoresheet first for only the second time in six games. LaRose collected the puck near the boards and sent it to Staal, who flipped a pass up to Whitney. Whitney charged to the net and batted it legally out of the air and past a helpless Brodeur for his second of the postseason.
At that point, the ‘Canes were outshooting the Devils 12-1. Whitney unleashed another bomb that Brodeur had to do a dolphin dive on in order to keep the puck under control.
Staal shocked the crowd when he actually attempted to hit someone in open ice. Granted, it was the most awkward hit in the history of hits; he sort of nudged the Devil, whose back was turned, and fell on him. But the thought was there.
Staal was the trailer on an excellent three-man passing play and took a pass from Whitney that dribbled under Brodeur to make it 2-0.
Once the floodgates opened for Staal, he kept rolling with the tide. He was the lucky recipient of another beautiful passing play less than three minutes later. Tim Gleason set Whitney up with a lead pass and The Wizard held onto the puck as he went in with Staal on an odd man rush. He held on until the last second, then passed to Staal. Brodeur had already hit the deck and Staal lifted it easily over the goaltender.
“We’ve been playing a skating game that, since I’ve been here, we’ve been built around,” Whitney said. “When we play like that we’re good, and when we don’t, we’re very beatable.”
Finally, a sell-out. Those pesky, low-selling sections were packed tonight and even the Champion’s Club was mostly full. In the first period, the noise hit uncharted levels. Now this is what the playoffs are supposed to look like.
The cameramen found Tyler Hansbrough sitting in the lower level during the second period, wearing a white-and-blue polo and with eyes bugged out as usual. He was roundly booed by the Wolfpack-friendly RBC Center crowd. Sidney Lowe was featured next, and the crowd couldn’t decide what it thought about that. He was greeted with a strange, gurgled mix of noise. At least Lowe was actually wearing ‘Canes merchandise—it looked to be a Rod Brind’Amour jersey.
The game was starting to look eerily similar to Game 4, but everyone gave a collective sigh of relief when Carolina survived the last minute of the second period with a 3-0 lead. Not to spoil the ending, but New Jersey couldn’t find a way to mount a similar comeback.
“We didn’t sit back because we’ve seen in the playoffs how these leads can disappear quickly,” Ward said.
The first part of the third passed without a tally or even a penalty. John Madden made an impressive play when he was stung along the boards, got up and limped over to join the play, then almost scored on Ward from close in.
Directly afterward, Travis Zajac and Madden took back-to-back penalties and gave the ‘Canes a 5-on-3 for 1:19, and Jussi Jokinen made quick work of it. I’m running out of adjectives to describe Ray Whitney’s centering passes, but he notched his third beautiful primary of the game when he sent a calculated pass right through the goal crease. The undermanned New Jersey penalty killers forgot that Jokinen was lurking there and he easily buried it back door.
Gleason and Clarkson squared off in the first mano-a-mano fight in this playoff series. With both referees and linesmen engaged in breaking up a large scrum in front of Carolina’s net, Gleason and Clarkson locked arms and skated to the front of the ‘Canes bench to duel. Both got in a few good hooks before the fight was broken up. Both players received 10-minute misconducts, which made them ineligible to play for the rest of the game. I’m never a fan of Gleason fighting because it takes Carolina’s best defenseman out of the line-up for a solid chunk of time, but at this point it hardly mattered. The only concern would be that Gleason would injure himself, but he looked fine as he trudged off to the locker room.
How was this different from Game 4? Not much. The ‘Canes were able to put more traffic in front of Brodeur and clog the offensive zone with ease. Even though three of their goals came off odd-man rushes, this was important for the ‘Canes because it kept the puck away from Ward. The line-up was different but the intensity was the same. This time, New Jersey buckled, taking untimely penalties and allowing the ‘Canes to drill holes in its defense. Brodeur left his bulletproof vest at home, and the Devils weren’t backed by their noisy home crowd. That last fact is worrisome going into Game 7.
Even though this game was a positive sign, many ‘Canes fans are probably anxious at the prospect of a Game 7 in New Jersey, and I share your fear. Every time the Devils have been beaten, they have responded with fury instead of melting down. This will be an incredibly difficult game to win, but the ‘Canes have history on their side: They have won their last two seven-game series, as we all know. However, no team in this series has won two games in a row. There is good news—the guys in the locker room seem to understand the gravity of the situation. The room should have been filled with music and laughter after a 4-0 shutout, but the players were focused on the challenge ahead.
Game 7—the ultimate hockey event, a sacred experience for casual and rabid fans alike—will be on Tuesday night. Triangle Offense will be liveblogging during the game, so please join in and share your thoughts as the ‘Canes fight for their postseason lives. It should prove to be an incredible finish to a thrilling first-round series, and whoever wins will be more than deserving. So will the losing team, for that matter.
“[This game] means nothing unless we win on Tuesday,” Staal said.