RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—After yet another Jussi Jokinen clutch goal, this one in overtime against the Boston Bruins, the Carolina Hurricanes find themselves in a position they aren’t used to – ahead. Eric Staal, Sergei Samsonov and Jokinen scored and Ward made 21 saves in a back-and-forth match to give the ‘Canes a 3-2 win and a 2-1 series advantage in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“You know, there are things called the hockey gods. Sometimes they’ll give the breaks to the team that deserves it,” Boston coach Claude Julien said in the postgame.
The ‘Canes dominated the second period as they did in Game 2 and overcame a few scares in OT before Jokinen buried a rebound. The team moved up to 6-0 when Staal scored a goal in the postseason and 28-3-2 on the year. Coincidence? Absolutely not. Staal has now scored in each of the ‘Canes’ playoff victories.
I have one last bone to pick with the empty seats at the RBC Center during the second round of the playoffs, then (hopefully) we’ll call it square. Empty seats, why aren’t there butts on you? The announced score was 18,680, a “sell out,” but there were still patches of empty seats in the lower sections. I know there are a bevy of excuses – high ticket prices, the assumption that there won’t be seats left – but really. There are 22 other teams’ worth of fans that would give anything to be in your position, and they’re mocking you. Plunk down a few dollars and enjoy all that playoff hockey as to offer.
And now, for the game. Erik Cole skated in on a two-on-one right after the National Anthem with Ray Whitney. Cole had all the time and space in the world, waited until the defenseman hit the ice and passed the puck cleanly to Whitney. Whitney deflected the puck just wide.
Ward was sharp, absorbing the puck several times early. The swarming ‘Canes came close to tying the score multiple times and Thomas was offering up juicy rebounds left and right, but nothing materialized.
David Krejci attempted a wrap-around and just missed an empty net before Ward corralled the puck and sent it on its merry way. Right afterward, the puck bounced off Ward and then glanced off the post. One fraction of an inch closer and the Bruins would have been on the board earlier, but after a defensive breakdown in front of the net, Boston tough guy Milan Lucic collected his own rebound and sent it to the roof.
Far from collapsing, the ‘Canes had Thomas spinning like a top, making incredible saves all the while. Matt Cullen looked skyward in disbelief when he tucked the puck behind a prone Thomas and the goaltender stretched out to smother it with his glove.
Boston’s Andrew Ference nailed Ryan Bayda while his back was to him, face-forward into the boards in front of the ‘Canes’ bench. Bayda skated to the bench, perfectly okay after a potentially very dangerous play, and Ference took a seat for two minutes. The ‘Canes couldn’t get anything going on the power play and went into the second period down a goal.
A few minutes into the second period, nothing had really happened. Oh, except for that time a young woman exposed herself on the jumbotron. She peeled off her black jersey, and nobody thought much of that. They left the camera on her and she proceeded to left up her white shirt and expose her bra. She might have gotten to third base with the RBC Center patrons if the thoughtful (or thoughtless, depending on how you look at it) cameraman hadn’t switched over to a cute kid.
Zdeno Chara drew the ire of the crowd and the blissful ignorance of the referees when he knocked Tuomo Ruutu down behind the play and refused to let him get back up. It just goes to show that you can get away with anything in hockey, as long as you look confused and/or apologetic while committing your infraction.
The ‘Canes couldn’t catch a break and Ruutu went to the box for tripping a few minutes later. The ‘Canes played go fetch for a good while but the Bruins put together a far better power play than the ‘Canes managed earlier in the game.
There was one incredible, minute-plus long stanza where Staal, Cole and various others missed the net but the puck remained in Boston’s zone. A goal seemed imminent, but a penalty would do nicely as well.
The Bab’o’Cannon was loaded and ready to fire on the power play, but Aaron Ward went down and blocked the shot. As a former ‘Cane who has played with Babchuk and experienced the excruciating pain that comes when you find yourself in the way of Babchuk’s blasts, you’d think Ward would have known better. But he didn’t and the puck stayed out.
When the team needed him, Staal pulled his best Samwise Gamgee impression yet again and pulled the team on his back. Staal came in from the boards, creeped around the net and was ready and waiting when an odd bounce found him in front of the net. The goal tied the game at one and was unassisted.
Sergei Samsonov kept the good times rolling with another goal 1:09 later, a tally that seemed to happen in slow motion. Samsonov came in on a three-man breakout just like many unsuccessful ones the ‘Canes had attempted during the game, but this time his tricky shot beat a spooked Thomas handily. It was Samsonov’s first of the postseason and Scott Walker and Jokinen received the assists.
“It feels great with what I’ve been through this year,” Jokinen said of his sudden success in Carolina. “Three months ago I was on waivers twice and no one wanted to pick me up. I found my confidence again here.”
The fans brought out the “Ref you suck” cheer for the fourth time that night after Niclas Wallin took a silly make-up call. Wallin pushed Stephane Yelle and the Bruin ran into the boards on his own accord. Granted, it was head-first, but he wasn’t facing the boards when Wallin sideswiped him and if anything, he fell. But the first part of the penalty passed harmlessly and Marc Savard crashed into Cam Ward, drawing a goaltender interference call and negating the superfluous penalty.
Two minutes into the third period, Chad LaRose was cross checked from behind along the boards, but no call was offered. There were plenty of missed calls both ways in this game, possibly spurred by a toot heard ‘round the league last night by a whistle-happy referee. The premature call ruined a comeback chance for the Detroit Red Wings and perhaps the “zebras” were on their guard. LaRose jumped up and continued to generate good scoring chances for his linemates like the sparkplug he is.
The Bruins tied the game 2-2 on a lucky deflection midway through the third. Mark Recchi was in the right place at the right time and the puck deflected off him and past a screened Ward.
Cole could have had 10 points tonight, but he was plagued with scoring problems. First off, he couldn’t find a linemate who wouldn’t whiff on one of his odd-man passes. In addition, he seemed a little overexcited and forgot the cardinal rule: find puck first, then skate. He left the puck everywhere and by the time he located it and started his engines on one of those drives to the net, Boston was in place to head him off.
Cullen tried to stuff Thomas again against the post in the third but all he found was blocker. Whitney almost gave the ‘Canes the winner with just over a minute left in the game but Thomas flashed out his leg pad.
With the Bruins swarming, Ward stonewalled Lucic in overtime and got exceedingly lucky when another shot soared over the crossbar.
“Lucic came down and had a partial breakaway and it was nice to make that save to give ourselves a chance,” Ward said. “I didn’t have to do much. It was a quiet night for me because we played pretty well in our own zone.”
The game is winding down. You need a clutch goal. Who ya gonna call? Jussi Jokinen! The Finn Finisher (copyrighted, ah thank you) scored his fifth of the postseason in the only style he knows – when his team is desperate and there is no time left to spare. After his tally with 0.2 seconds left in Game 4 against New Jersey and his game-tying goal with 1.20 left in Game 7, scoring in overtime to give the ‘Canes a series lead against Boston seemed almost passé, but the act was still appreciated by the Carolina bench and fans.
“That guy is money for us right now,” Ward said. “He’s a guy that steps up his game and takes advantage of the opportunity.”
Julien gave the Hurricanes too much credit in the postgame; this team played neither as cleanly nor as effectively as we have seen them in these playoffs. However, tonight against the power-mad Bruins, the ‘Canes will take it without question.
Game 4, in which could – incredibly – put it away, will take place on Friday nights. Empty seats, find some butts to fill you. Last I checked there were still tickets available.