RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—It wasn't an elimination game. It wasn't a playoff game. It wasn't one of the final, frantic games of the regular season. But it was a must-win game for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Henrik Lundqvist made 35 saves and Brandon Prust scored the lone goal for the blueshirts after they demolished the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-0 the night before in New York. Responding to a benching, sniper Marian Gaborik scored four goals in that game on a line with Artem Anisimov and agitator Sean Avery. But Sutter's line kept them in the minus column on this night.
Carolina was good from the drop of the puck. Just 30 seconds in, Rangers defender Dan Girardi had to scoop a shot out of the net that had gotten through Lundqvist’s armor, fooling both the crowd and the goal judge, who briefly sounded the horn. Replays showed only half of the puck over the goal line.
Five minutes later, the Canes got the puck the rest of the way in. Jeff Skinner split two defensemen on a ramshackle rush up the center of the ice. So good with his feet, he kept the puck moving inexorably forward, spinning to slap a shot that Ryan McDonagh's leg deadened. Following the rush, Chad LaRose smacked the puck under Lundqvist, scoring for his third straight home game.
Lundqvist will be back in Raleigh as an All-Star next week, and his patient positional work in net kept his team in this game. About halfway through the period, Skinner dragged the puck tantalizingly across the slot but Lundqvist never bit on the move, out-waiting the forward and absorbing the shot with his shoulder. A couple of minutes later, Jiri Tlusty wristed a sharp pass to the net mouth to give Ryan Carter a golden chance, but Lundqvist held his ground, his pads tight to the ice. He has a way of never showing a shooter enough net to shoot at, so the shooter delays until the defense closes on him, or shoots ineffectually into Lundqvist's equipment.
It has been interesting to study Ward, Lundqvist, and Tim Thomas this week—half of the All-Star goaltending roster. Ward deserved a shutout for the way he played, stopping a handful of Ranger breakaways during periods of wide-open play. In the opening minutes, Prust flew in alone but Ward froze and took the shot with the Hurricanes logo on his chest. Mats Zuccarello came in clean from the red line but Ward never allowed him to see enough net to shoot at.
The Canes beat Lundqvist again on the power play with about five minutes remaining in the first. Joe Corvo—who has really grown his skills at getting point shots through to the net this season—glided backwards along the blueline with his shot cocked and ready. Jussi Jokinen darted into the slot to deflect it over Lundqvist's stick for his sixth goal in as many games.
Every game has a game within it, and this one featured Sutter's line versus Gaborik's. The great Slovakian scorer was rendered unnoticeable in this tilt. Only Avery made a name for himself, and then mainly between whistles and faceoffs—jawing with LaRose, and shoving Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Staal, on his way to the Ranger bench. And when Jay Harrison engaged Avery in a jousting match at the five-minute mark, it led to Carolina's third goal.
Sergei Samsonov, who has been handling the puck with aplomb this week, skated up the wing out of a cloud of players trying to possess the disk. But rather than carry it, as can be his tendency, he moved it ahead to an open area, where Sutter converged. Accelerating out of the crowd, Sutter went in alone on Lundqvist. Unhurriedly, Sutter spread his toes to slow in the crease, moving the puck to his backhand to beat the goalie's leg pad to the post. It was Sutter's first goal in 16 games, and it was a beauty.
Coach Paul Maurice spoke admiringly of Sutter's role on the team after the game. "This guy is special. What's happened is you've got Staal and Ward who are kind of coming into their prime and they draw a lot of attention, and then a young player like Skinner coming up and putting up so many points... he gets kind of aged into the middle, where you forget that he's young. Normally, a player like that, you wouldn't play him against the other team's best. Jeff Skinner doesn't play against the other team's best. This guy, he's got the right character and the right mentality for the role that he has to play here for us to win."
The Rangers tried to summon character and mentality, starting two fights as the second period waned. Harrison and Prust waged an epic battle, and then Carter and Kris Newberry pounded each other along the boards before the ensuing faceoff. But the rest of the game belonged largely to Ward. His best save of the night came on an uncontested Avery one-timer from the dot in the third period that left the pest skating circles and looking at the RBC Center rafters as the 15,000+ crowd jeered.
Prust spoiled Ward's shutout with a nice wrist shot from the slot, but LaRose and Skinner responded four minutes later. The young All-Star turned up ice in his own zone and fired a pass diagonally across to LaRose. LaRose missed the puck initially but saw that it had enough mustard to come back off the boards to him. At speed, he reclaimed the puck, carried it behind the Ranger net, and centered to Skinner for his seventeenth of the year.
All that was left to determine was Avery's exit. A minute after the Skinner goal, Avery slashed Erik Cole. They attacked each other on the boards and the officials quickly sent them both to the locker rooms early.
Next up for Carolina is a trip to Pittsburgh, 2-0 losers in New Jersey on Thursday night without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee) in their lineup. It will be Carolina's fourth straight game against an All-Star goalie—Marc-Andre Fleury was voted onto the roster by fans.