RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Perhaps Joni Pitkanen had better things to do. Perhaps he was considering scheduling a spa visit during the upcoming All-Star break. Or he had to pick up some milk and graavilohi from the store on the drive home. Or perhaps he was mentally filling out a deposit slip for the next check on his $4.5 million salary.
In some ways, this game was more frustrating than the 7-0 drubbing that the Bruins administered in Boston on Monday afternoon—Carolina manufactured scoring chance after scoring chance, putting 19 shots on goaltender Tim Thomas in each of the first two periods—but it was also a triumph of sorts. After losing so badly on the front end of this home-and-home series, the Hurricanes needed to show their skill and their speed but, more than that, they needed to show their character. And, aside from Pitkanen’s continued lackadaisical play, they did.
It didn’t start well, though. Jussi Jokinen tripped hulking defenseman Zdeno Chara only 17 seconds in and had to watch a Boston power play go back to work that had cranked in three goals the afternoon before. Immediately Chara—who has to be the favorite to win the hardest-shot competition at the All-Star skills competition here next week—blasted his heavy point shot. Ward kicked out several rebounds but was fighting the puck, and finally with just a dozen seconds left in the man advantage Johnny Boychuk cranked a point shot of his own. Marc Savard was just enough of a distraction to Cam Ward, perhaps even tipping the shot, and it was déjà vu all over again just two minutes in.
The psyche of both the Canes and the near-capacity crowd seemed fragile. Defenders were reluctant to bring the puck out from behind the net, hesitantly double-hitting a couple of passes. Forwards dumped the puck and scurried off to change lines. But uneventful minutes ticked and the home team steadied. When Troy Bodie tried to separate Dennis Seidenberg’s torso from his body with a deafening check into the boards, the crowd regained its confidence, too.
The Canes fired shot after shot for the remainder of the period and the game, coming in waves, undaunted by Thomas’ saves. Erik Cole careened through the neutral zone to fist a bouncing puck into the crease, creating a fat rebound for Sergei Samsonov, but Thomas stayed square to the play and kicked the Russian’s shot to the corner. On their next shift together Samsonov returned the favor, flicking the puck into the crease as Cole arrived there, but Thomas parried with a carbon-copy kickout.
Both goalies in this game showed why they are among the six All-Star netminders. During stoppages, Thomas is more of a placid study than even Ward, gliding out to the top of the slot to kneel and stretch his quads. His teammates rarely come anywhere near him, loitering tightly along the boards like baseball players bunched up at one end of the bench to isolate a pitcher who has a no-hitter going.
Finally the Canes got on the board during the last seconds of a Brad Marchand hooking minor. Jokinen started the play by centering the puck from behind the net, but it found its way untouched through the legs and sticks, and a Bruin finally flicked a backhanded clear. Jamie McBain got in front of the puck, however, and Joe Corvo moved it down low to Eric Staal at the side of the net. His crease pass to Jokinen, who had looped around to loiter at the far post, gave last week’s NHL first-star a tap-in goal with just 81 seconds left in the period.
A strange call happened as the horn blew the period over. The Canes took a rush to the net, and Chara seemed to kick the net off its pegs. The official behind the goal appeared to point at center ice—signifying a penalty shot—but then he skated out to the dot and called a roughing minor on Thomas instead.
It’s too bad goalies don’t serve their own penalties. Thomas stopped two tip chances by Cole and a Jokinen wrist shot from close range. Back at even strength, Thomas waited calmly for an undefended Chad LaRose to close in at the side of the net, only moving to the squash the puck once LaRose changed to his backhand in the crease to try to shovel a shot in.
Ward countered by gloving a sharp Nathan Horton wrister from ten feet on a Boston power play for perhaps his best save of the night. But Thomas one-upped him by coming out to the bottom of the circles to stop a Cole one-timer, anticipating the shot even before the puck came off the boards to Cole. The Bruins and Canes combined to put 58 shots on net in the first two periods but each team managed just a goal.
The third period increased in intensity, as LaRose and Lucic tenderized each other with their sticks after a whistle and over-anxious players were kicked out of practically every faceoff. Such a play led to the Bruins’ second goal almost four minutes in.
Patrice Bergeron was booted from the circle on a faceoff in the Carolina zone. Mark Recchi replaced him and won it to Chara at the point. Chara’s bomb bounced off Ward to Brad Marchand in the slot, and the Bruins regained the lead. The goal stunned the Canes, who absorbed some punishment—Boychuk decked Jeff Skinner as he entered the Boston zone, and Jokinen was felled by Shawn Thornton near center ice—before tying the game at the 9:19 mark.
Skinner, who has stepped up his physicality of late, chipped a shot high into the air off a Boston stick. As a crowd of players tracked the puck’s descent in front of Thomas, Skinner crosschecked Marc Savard to get him out of the way just before the puck landed, throwing it at the goal. LaRose, who had looped around the back of the goal, crammed the loose puck in.
The Canes mobbed LaRose joyfully in the corner. This tally marked a catharsis of the previous day’s shellacking. The Canes had stood up to the bigger, meaner Bruins and simply made a goal happen when they needed to. But, emboldened by his goal, LaRose soon made an error that led to the wrong denouement.
He ran at Chara behind the Boston net, his stick came up, and Chara skated off holding his face. And although LaRose might have to take an elevator to get his elbow up to Chara’s head—the tallest man ever to play in the NHL, Chara towers nearly a foot over LaRose—his collision drew an elbowing call with just over nine minutes left, setting up Pitkanen’s gaffe.
Shorthanded, Pitkanen stood reluctantly in the slot in the posture of a child being punished. Mark Recchi began to skate behind the net with the puck, tracked ably by Jay Harrison, but Pitkanen glided lugubriously past the far post, as if to intercept, leaving the slot empty. Before the net eclipsed him, Recchi flicked the puck to Lucic as he came into the slot. Easy goal. Correction: easy game-winning goal.
At some point, one has to wonder when Pitkanen’s ice time—a team-high 28:09 in this tilt—will be distributed among Jamie McBain, Tim Gleason, and Joe Corvo, who each were exceptional throughout. The Canes’ highest paid player after deserving All-Stars Staal and Ward, Pitkanen routinely ices the puck within a few strides of the red line, floats soft point shots into the goalie’s glove well before teammates close in on the crease, and skids predictable passes across to his power play partner that just scream for a shorthanded breakaway. Due to be an unrestricted free agent, his disinterest begs for a trade deadline change of teams rather than a bidding war for his services after the season.
Pitkanen’s stoicism continued as the minutes ticked down. With under four minutes left, he was unwilling to fight for the puck inside his own zone, but McBain crashed in to take it and skate it all the way into the Boston end—not his only inspired play of the night—forcing a faceoff in front of Thomas. With 2:30 left, coach Paul Maurice could be seen frantically waving his team up ice as Pitkanen stopped skating at the dot to survey the ice, apparently waiting for a passing lane to open. Boston, however, locked down the ice, even after Ward left for an extra attacker.
Although the Canes lost this game, they found a different kind of intensity from even their recent victories over Tampa Bay and Calgary—a playoff intensity. They’ll need it Thursday night when the Rangers visit, and again in Pittsburgh Saturday, as Carolina continues a stretch playing teams ahead of them in the standings.