RBC CENTER/RALEIGH - The Hurricanes got a 60 minute effort tonight at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning and won in regulation for the first time since Oct. 9. The Lightning, which was clinging to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, parted like the Red Sea and allowed the ‘Canes to party like it was 2008. Good defense, crisp passes, clutch saves by Manny Legace when Carolina needed them – this looked like a completely different Carolina team.
Those watching from home might not have seen Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis get a lesson in anthem etiquette from the RBC Center crowd before the game. St. Louis was peer pressured into removing his backwards baseball cap before the start of the national anthem from several vocal Caniacs in the stands.
Hole moly, was that a forecheck? The crucial offensive component that has been rumored to exist, but has been so rarely seen this season, got to work in the Lightning end as Carolina put a consistent cycle together in the first period and almost scored several times. Whitney had the best with a solo opportunity on Mike Smith with a half open net, but couldn’t convert.
St. Louis got Tampa on the board first after he roofed a rebound on a power play. Tom K-Something was in the box for tripping.
Legace said after the game that the puck hit his derriere and went in.
“My butt’s so big – need to lose some pounds,” Legace joked.
The ‘Canes left the first period only down by one, a rarity in and of itself, but also didn’t let the first goal affect their play in the slightest. They were faster, more in control and executed well in this game, as though maybe the latter stages of the Toronto game showed them what needed to be done.
“I think we played like we were capable of,” Tuomo Ruutu said. “We were way better in the first period than we have been recently. They got the first goal, but we stayed with out game. We rolled four lines and I thought everybody played well.”
After Whitney and Brandon Sutter both narrowly missed shots on net during a penalty to Ryan Malone that seemed to crawl by, Ruutu took a Whitney feed and send a line drive past Smith to tie the score at one. That makes four goals and five assists for Ruutu, who seems to have become the statistical and emotional leader of this injury-depleted team, through nine games.
After that, the ‘Canes forgot what they had done so well through the first 30 minutes of the game. They stood in a cluster and watched as the Lightning encircled them and passed the puck around like mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving along the boards. A timely Andrew Alberts clear got Carolina out of that one still tied.
Legace snatched the puck out of the air soon afterward in one of the more impressive saves he’s made during his short tenure with Carolina.
“The mood in the room over the last week has been better,” Joe Corvo said. “Everybody just feels better, and those little plays – we’re winning those little battles.”
Former Lightning player Jussi Jokinen was all over the place on the second period and it looked like only a matter of time before he got a goal of his own. Sure enough, he picked up the trash in front of Smith after a Corvo blast late in the period.
Smith countered with an absolute stunner during a ‘Canes power play midway through the third period, flashing out his leg to deny Sutter.
With the Lightning buzzing and trying to tie it up, Chad LaRose finally got his first of the year when he cleanly beat Smith on a 2-on-1 with Sergei Samsonov with four and a half minutes left. It was the 300th assist of Samsonov’s career.
Tampa Bay had a few late chances but didn’t get back on the board.
Legace was all compliments after the game, with a little introspection thrown in.
“I had a good front row seat tonight and it was a beautiful sight to watch these guys perform in front of me,” he said. “We had dedication for 60 minutes, and that’s what it’s going to take. We’re not a team that has superstars that will bury five goals a night. We’ve got to grind it out.”
With three wins and seven points in their last four games, the ‘Canes will take to the road and meet Dallas and Anaheim in their barns. The ‘Canes have lost six of seven against the Western Conference so far, most of which were by a wide goal margin. Both teams are barely outside of the playoff picture right now.