by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/RALEIGH - After so many weeks of struggling, this one looked laughably easy…for at least the first period. Propelled by its young call-ups, the ‘Canes came out strong but finished weak, falling to Toronto by a final tally of 3-2.
Gleason and Cullen wore the A’s in the places of injured Eric Staal and Ray Whitney. Aside from looking like a munchkin next to other NHL players, 5’10ish Zach Boychuk looked strong in his season debut. Brandon Sutter continued to be the only ‘Canes player who can put the puck in the net at will and scored his third of the season – the only three goals Carolina scored during a span of 180 minutes of play and change, incidentally.
"We let the lead slip, but I was getting a lot more chances, especially in the second and the third," Boychuk mused. "I'm happy with the way I played."
It was a battle of the underachievers, as Toronto and Carolina were tied for dead last in the league with seven points apiece coming into Friday night. This is the kind of game I like to call a “suck-off.” It doesn’t matter who wins – just who sucks less. Use it at will, but just remember Indy said it first.
Brandon Sutter picked up a loose puck and scored his third goal since being recalled from Albany. The guy there wasn’t room for in the roster to start the season is now second only to Ray Whitney in goal scoring.
Sergei Samsonov got on the board next with a rebound off a long Andrew Alberts shot from the point. He skated around, cool as a cucumber, waited for Jonas Gustavsson to commit and slid the puck around him.
However, the rest of the night wasn’t quite so easy. Rod Brind’Amour nicked one off the post on a power play with seconds remaining in the first period.
Fresh out of the first intermission, Toronto’s John Mitchell wasted no time in getting the Leafs onto the scoreboard. He fired a shot past a barely screened Ward from just inside the blue line.
Scott Walker and Tom K-Something had a golden opportunity when they walked in with one Toronto defenseman in their way, but, in true Carolina fashion, they tried too many cutesy passes and couldn’t even get a shot off. It also would have been textbook Hurricanes to turn around and allow a goal after that, but Ward made the save.
And then the ‘Canes we’ve come to recognize came back with a vengeance. Alexei Ponikarovski dumped the puck along the boards, then picked it up again and made an expertly placed pass onto the stick of Nikolai Kulemin, who tapped it in to make it 2-2.
Boychuk had an unhindered 1-on-1 with Gustavsson with just over a minute left in the second, but after putting the moves on him, his shot went wide.
After Brind’Amour took a seat for holding, Jason Blake’s shot went in after a shorthanded breakout from the ‘Canes. For some reason – probably because the shot was so quick – the goal light didn’t come on and the players continued on without looking at the ref, who saw the goal and had his arm outstretched. Mitchell put the puck in again, just in case the ‘Canes didn’t get the point the first time.
The ‘Canes couldn’t control possession long enough to pull Ward from the net until there was just over a minute to go. Even then, it took a long stretch and a time-out to get things under control enough to manage a few good chances on net. With the crowd loud and on its feet, overjoyed no doubt that the home team wasn’t down by four or five at this point in the game for a change, but a handful of good scoring chances were turned away or went wide.
"We were better," Mo said. "We had more offense and more confidence - we're just not finishing."
So what went wrong tonight? Not as much. The ‘Canes looked good – er, better – but missed out on some scoring chances that a team that had it together certainly wouldn’t have missed. Gustavsson was sending out juicy rebounds like a pinball machine and a trailer, or even a teammate in the general vicinity, could have easily tapped it in and put the game away. As has been the case, the big names aren’t stepping up and the defense can’t stop a beach ball. Players are no longer going for the hit, staring at the puck like it was solid gold and forgetting their jobs and still trying to be too cutesy. Penalty minutes are down, but so is team toughness.
Toronto found its sea legs in the second, and as keeps happening, when the Leafs scored in the third the ‘Canes’ didn’t bounce back. But overall, tonight displayed signs of improvement. One has to take that with a grain of salt because the opponent was also a struggling team, but there weren’t as many mental mistakes and the chances were certainly there. A few lucky breaks and Carolina would have had its first win since a month ago Monday.
After losing to its bottom-feeder brethren, Carolina players threw their gear in bags and headed out for a late flight to Columbus, where the team will look to snap its slide before it hits an even dozen against the Blue Jackets. Maybe former ‘Cane Mike Commodore will take pity and allow the ‘Canes to blow by him en route to the net…although he may do that without being prompted. (Sorry, Mike.) The game starts at 7 p.m.
Sutter, notably more chipper than the rest of the team, said there was no time to dwell on the negatives of tonight.
"Things aren't going our way right now. We just have to keep shooting and stay with it," Sutter said. "We've got to look at the positives because we're playing again tomorrow."