RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—When you haven’t won in over a month, any small edge you can get against your opponent will do. Saturday afternoon, two ‘Canes utilized knowledge of the man at the other end of the ice’s shootout tendencies and used that to earn Carolina’s first win since Oct. 9.
The ‘Canes connected for three goals on the power play, but that wasn’t enough to smother all their inadequacies. Two nights after erasing a three-goal lead against the Islanders, Carolina allowed the Wild to close the gap after holding 3-0 and 4-1 leads, respectively. But Jussi Jokinen put the moves on Niklas Backstrom in the shootout and Leighton stopped all three attempts to give the ‘Canes their first win in 15 tries, 5-4.
“Every bounce that they got was just like ‘wow,’” Leighton said. “You almost think, ‘what else could go wrong in that game.’ Everything that could have gone wrong in that game went wrong, except that we got the win.”
Jokinen scored from his knees (no pun intended?) right after a faceoff to give the ‘Canes an early lead. He took a pass from Tuomo Ruutu and was tripped up, which would have resulted in a power play had he not batted it by Backstrom back door.
A steady trickle of Minnesota players from the ice to the penalty box gave the Carolina power play a chance to catch fire. Bryan Rodney fed Joe Corvo for a goal with two minutes left in the first. Ruutu placed himself immovably in front of Backstrom, where he was for most of the period’s scoring chances, and screened the goalie while the shot made a beeline for the net.
Ruutu screened Backstrom again during a power play to the Wild’s Derek Boogaard and Ray Whitney sent another long shot through traffic that went off the post and in.
Michael Leighton stoned the Wild on two wraparound chances, one on each side, before a deflected shot from the blue line soared over his right shoulder to make the score 3-1.
Brandon Sutter zoomed in and tapped in a feed from Ray Whitney right on the goal line during another Wild penalty.
That’s when the floodgates opened and that familiar Hurricanes incompetence came back with a vengeance. The Wild brought it within two again in nearly identical fashion. With Leighton zooming back and forth in the crease trying to prevent a wraparound goal, Carolina allowed Robbie Earl to skate in a full circle around Leighton and pick his shot, which turned out to be from the right circle.
20 seconds later, John Scott picked up his own rebound and scored again. The goals were the first of Scott’s and Earl’s careers and the eighth time this season the ‘Canes have given up two goals in a one minute span.
The reeling Hurricanes badly needed to calm down and avoid allowing another quick goal as they skated around like the proverbial headless chickens. According to Whitney, that’s “easier to talk about than it is to do.”
“We were disgusted [for] one, pissed off for another,” Whitney said. “But we were good enough to put us behind us.”
If it weren’t for a sprawling Leighton save and some luck, the ‘Canes would have let two three-goal leads disappear in one period. However, the Wild made quick work of completing the comeback after a strange bounce off the boards gave Earl his second goal of the game. It was unassisted.
Stephane Yelle joined a lengthy injury list after blocking a shot on the power play in the third period. This put the ‘Canes three men down, as Joni Pitkanen and Scott Walker went off with body injuries (upper and lower are so nonspecific, why not just do away with the whole charade?) There was enough room on the depleted Carolina bench for the survivors to stretch out and take a nap while waiting for their next shift.
Shots were even at four per team in overtime, though Minnesota clearly controlled the tempo. Mo went with his hot hands…and, er, Matt Cullen…in the shootout.
Ruutu went first. He looked to have him stumped, but the shot went wide.
Antti Miettinen’s shot was stopped by Leighton; he didn’t get anything on it.
Jokinen deked out Backstrom for the only goal for either team.
Mikko Koivu had the puck roll off his stick and never got the shot off.
Matt Cullen slowed to a crawl and tried some shifty moves, but Backstrom saw it the whole way.
Merek Zidlicky – a defenseman, oddly – went wide, but Leighton stopped it with his foot.
And just like that, the ‘Canes’ were out of the standings quicksand, though they’re still a point behind the second-worse team in the league and 11 points out of a playoff spot. The celebration rivaled that of a series-ending playoff goal, full of hugs and relief.
It’s incredible how much scouting seems to go into shootouts, and that paid off for two Carolina players. Jokinen played with and practiced against Backstrom in Finland for four years, and said the goaltender had the edge in that scenario.
“I don’t want to shoot to him. He knows me so well,” Jokinen said. “It was a mental battle, but I was happy to get one past him and get a win for us.”
Prior experience with his shooter helped Leighton as well.
“I played with Zidlicky for a little bit in Nashville so I knew him and I know his moves,” Leighton said. “I actually thought he was going to shoot it because he usually does, but he tried to fake a shot and go around. I stuck with him and made the save.”
The ‘Canes will travel north of the boarder to take on Montreal Tuesday before hosting the Maple Leafs at home Thursday. Whitney, who finished with three points tonight, acknowledged that while the team won’t analyze their third win of the season too closely, players and staff need to figure out why they Wild came out with a point after the ‘Canes amassed a 4-1 lead.
“[The feeling is] relief more than anything,” Whitney said. “You scratch your head a little bit as to why we gave up a three-goal lead, but we’ll take what we get.”