FSN SOUTH (TV)—One of the dirtiest words you can utter in hockey is "almost."
The Penguins turned the tables on Carolina Saturday night. Two days earlier in Raleigh, the Canes emerged from uncertain waters in their playoff drive with a decisive win against the Rangers after being swept by Boston in a home-and-home series by a combined score of 10-2. But Pittsburgh was the more desperate team this night, missing All-Stars Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee, illness) and coming off a 2-0 loss to cellar dweller New Jersey.
Pittsburgh played with the same combination of speed, decisiveness, and anger that Carolina had unleashed on New York. Having fallen five points behind the Flyers in the Atlantic Division, the Pens needed this game to keep pace, and were unexpectedly repaid by the Devils, who beat Philadelphia.
The Canes were not so lucky. To make matters worse, the two teams directly ahead of the Canes in the standings—New York and Atlanta—played each other and got points, with New York winning in a shootout.
Carolina looked good early, dominating the Penguins in the faceoff circle and forcing them to ice the puck repeatedly. But Marc-Andre Fleury held the Canes off the scoreboard with good positional saves despite a lot of bodies in front of him. Skinner executed a move that is becoming his trademark—walking the puck out from behind the net on his forehand, dancing around a defender while using the side of the net to pass back to himself, and then flicking a quick shot up to try to overcome the goalie's leg pads. But Fleury would have none of Skinner's three quick shots.
After a scoreless first, the checking ratcheted up and the Penguins started buzzing around in the Carolina zone, peppering Cam Ward with shots. Seven minutes in, Mike Rupp—so big he could be confused with a Pittsburgh Steeler—flicked an accurate shot from the boards that Ward had to be sharp to keep from the post. Rupp retrieved the puck and brought it out front for Talbot to chop at, it but Ward was already down. After the faceoff, Ward stopped a point drive from Alex Goligoski as well as Arron Asham's one-timer of the rebound.
Cole's near goal followed on a delayed penalty call on Chris Conner for falling on Ward. Carrying down the wing, Cole squeezed a rising shot from the circle that appeared at first to have hit the crossbar and then the back of the net before kicking out. But replays showed the puck bouncing straight down off the crossbar, slamming into the ice a couple inches in front of the goal line, and tumbling akimbo out into the slot. Almost.
A couple of minutes later, Pittsburgh finally broke through. Skating 4-on-4 after a Jamie McBain interference penalty, Kris Letang outworked Carolina defenders at the side of the net to allow Brooks Orpik to get the puck to Dustin Jeffrey above the circle. Jeffrey's shot may or may not have been tipped by Jordan Staal. In any case, it went in and the Penguins led 1-0.
The third period was played at a breakneck pace. Not a minute in, Chris Kunitz came around the back of the goal unchecked but Ward crammed his toe into the post a hair before Kunitz could tuck the puck in. Cole dumped Ben Lovejoy in the crease after a mass of players battled in front of Ward, putting the Penguins on a power play. Off a rush, Kunitz found Mark Letestu in the slot and the Penguins had their second goal. Brandon Sutter found himself in no man's land between Kunitz and Letestu on the play.
When Orpik—other than Scott Stevens, the player most hated by Hurricanes fans for his March 2006 hit into the boards that broke Cole's neck—retaliated after a clean but hard check from Chad LaRose, the Canes hoped to climb back into the game on the man advantage about seven minutes into the period.
But Jordan Staal found Pascal Dupuis for a shorthanded breakaway, and the quick skater made it 3-0.
Coaches never seek out adversity, but they're always interested to see what their team's reaction to it will be. With two All-Stars on the shelf, the two healthy ones picked up the slack and led the Penguins. Kris Letang's skating and shooting was brilliant throughout. Fleury made all the saves he is supposed to make, adding in a few more impressive ones at key times during the game.
The Canes gave adversity a run for its money, as well. Down three goals with a 5:30 left, They finally broke onto the scoring column on a Sergei Samsonov shot off a Jiri Tlusty feed, energizing the visitors. After Skinner and Kunitz roughed each other—Kunitz received an extra minor despite Skinner needing to be held back by two referees—the Canes power play did everything but score. Eric Staal's diagonal pass to a solitary Cole was a thing of beauty, but Cole could not kick his stick to the puck, so the pass sailed to the corner.
Staal pulled the Canes to within one, however, with less than a minute to play, batting in the rebound of an Ian White shot from the corner of the net. This set up a frantic empty-net session, and Skinner's missed chance. Jumping on after Ward left, Skinner skated straight to the slot, watching the action. When the puck squirted out of the scrum down low, Skinner was ready for it. But it jumped his stick and cleared the zone.
The game ended as it began—with the brothers Staal in the faceoff circle against each other. Jordan worked it into the corner with eight seconds left, and wasted the rest of the time kicking it back to the boards until the horn sounded. Eric, frustrated, tussled with Orpik after the horn, which earned them both game misconduct calls.
And the Canes were left to wonder how to stop saying "almost."