RBC CENTER/RALEIGH - Fresh off its first three-game winning streak of the season, followed by a predictable loss in Detroit in which the ‘Canes actually looked pretty decent, the only question surrounding the game was which team would show up at 8 p.m. The match had a late start due to the State-Clemson game earlier today at the RBC Center and whatever was in the air for the last thirty seconds of that game stuck around as the ‘Canes also lost, 5-3, to the Atlanta Thrashers. Carolina managed to erase a two-goal lead but one mental lapse sunk the home team as it lost its 26th of the year.
Drayson Bowman, one half of Carolina’s hope for the future (with fellow call-up Zach Boychuk) was swapped for Jerome Samson before the game and ended up on the starting line-up with Tom Kostopoulos and Rod Brind’Amour. He said Brind’Amour had words of encouragement before the game.
“He said Samson got a point on his first shift, so no pressure,” Bowman laughed.
Joni Pitkanen took Carolina’s first penalty just seven seconds into the game. They couldn’t convert during the penalty but Niclas Wallin screened Cam Ward on a Zach Bogosian shot from the point after it expired. The puck bounced past him to make it 1-0 Thrashers. Matt Cullen almost got it back but couldn’t quite get there in time to collect his own rebound.
Carolina was thoroughly outplayed in the first period but somehow walked out tied. The Thrashers outshot the ‘Canes 14-10 (it seemed like a lot more) in the first period, generating near-constant traffic around the opposing net. They almost made it 2-0 several times with the best chance coming when a Thrasher picked up a rebound, found a seam and beat Ward, only to have it ring off the post.
With Finnish Olympic captain Teemu Selanne sidelined with a broken jaw and veteran Saku Koivu recently sidelined as well, every game is an audition tape for Jussi Jokinen. He added to his highlight reel on the power play with 1:06 remaining in the first period. Pitkanen sprung Jokinen, who ducked his cover at the top of the faceoff circles and went in alone, wrapping the puck around Ondrej Pavelec’s right leg. Will opposing teams finally learn how to stop Carolina’s new go-to play? If so, the team will be more screwed than it already is.
Bryan Little slap shot on a mostly open net went wide with one second left in the first period. The Thrashers carried a power play into the second period but couldn’t score on fresh ice.
Penalty shots are only awarded when a player is denied a good scoring chance. Even though I would certainly argue that Staal got a good scoring chance out of a breakaway in which he was hauled down from behind on a breakaway, he was awarded one. It didn’t matter because for all of Staal’s good attributes, he has never been great one-on-one and his shot was absorbed by Pavalec.
Ward had the right idea as far as coverage but was about a half second too late as Jim Slater scored short side. Some quick work by Brett Carson kept the deficit at one as Colby Armstrong found himself with the puck at his feet in the crease.
But Carolina left Rich Peverley wide open and completely alone 1:12 after Atlanta’s second goal in front of Cam Ward. He took an Eric Boulton cross-ice pass all the way from the boards while the ‘Canes watched in a stupor and buried it.
Bowman almost had his first NHL goal when he took a Tom Kostopolous pass and fired on net with Pavalec leaning to the opposite side, but it went well wide. Though he was held pointless, Bowman said he was proud of his personal effort.
“I played pretty good, had a couple of chances,” Bowman said. “There are some things that will come with more comfort, but I think it was a good start.”
Fisticuffs flew during a late penalty to Atlanta and Carolina wound up with a minute-long five-on-three. Minutes after being flattened behind the net, Jokinen scored his second of the night off a Staal feed. His shot pinballed around the net.
Ray Whitney completed the comeback on what felt like the fifteenth shot on net in a short span. The latter half of the five-on-three had just expired and the penalized man was back. Whitney picked up a rebound and scored his team-leading 15th of the season.
But my, how quickly things change. The announcer hadn’t even finished announcing Carolina’s goal before recently embattled Atlanta captain Ilya Kovalchuk scored on Ward glove side – his 28th of the season. The air left the building and confusion set in.
Though Jokinen did more than his share on offense, he said there was one area of the game that was sorely lacking.
“There were way too many odd-man rushes for them,” Jokinen said. “We didn’t play good enough defense to win this game.”
Nik Antropov scored an empty-netter with 23 seconds left in the game to seal the deal.
Jokinen said the two-game homestand against historically weak Southeast Division teams included “must-win” games. The ‘Canes will get to try and salvage the latter half of it Monday night against Tampa Bay. Fans will receive a Chad LaRose bobblehead upon entry, and afterward the ‘Canes can feel no sense of hesitancy (like I imagine would come with the idea of 10,000 useless bobbleheads piled in someone's office) when they trade him for a draft pick…I mean…what?