RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The Hurricanes had more than one opponent tonight—the Atlanta Thrashers and the league schedule-makers who gave them four nights off this late in the season.
Of the teams fighting for the last couple of spots in the Eastern Conference, only the New York Rangers were also in action last night, losing in regulation in Anaheim.
Erik Cole continued his hot hand against the Thrashers, Troy Bodie scored his first of the year, and Cam Ward was sharp enough to have deserved a win. For Atlanta, Ondrej Pavelec saved 35 shots and Rob Schremp and Tobias Enstrom scored first-period goals.
Emotion and momentum make all the difference in the stretch drive to the playoffs, and the Canes didn’t have it—or didn’t have sixty minutes of it, at least. After Friday night’s overtime win over Buffalo the Canes were flying high, but the next night they faltered in Chicago. Even the freshness of a loss that leaves a team hungry to erase it is preferable to the nervousness that must have set in as the idle Canes watched the Rangers and Sabres win games over the last week and pass them in the standings. You can’t build on anxiety.
The Canes showed little in a weak first period. When the puck wasn’t bouncing away from their sticks, it was staying on their stick blades too long, despite their having worked on transitioning from defense to offense in practices over the break.
Atlanta, meanwhile, came out of the locker room skating hard. When Tuomo Ruutu’s interference penalty gave them a power play not two minutes in, their five-man rotation netted the first goal. After Cam Ward simply robbed Blake Wheeler from the side of the net with the shaft of his stick, Evander Kane tipped the rebound back to a circling Rob Schremp at the dot. His forward momentum carried him into the slot before the Canes penalty killers could react, and Schremp popped Ward’s water bottle with a wrist shot up over the goalie’s shoulder.
Coach Paul Maurice reconfigured his top two lines in order to use Jokinen’s faceoff skills. Jokinen centered Cole and Jeff Skinner, while Eric Staal centered Cory Stillman and Tuomo Ruutu. The Jokinen line actually began the season in the pair of games in Finland, with success, but tonight neither line was able to capitalize on the chances it generated.
The Staal line exerted sustained pressure throughout the game, but had trouble getting shots to the net as Atlanta blocked shots in handfuls. Cole seemed out of synch with Skinner and Jokinen, who were unable to deliver pucks to him on the move for his signature barges down the wing.
Around the middle of the first period, the Canes intentionally iced the puck to generate a chance for a streaking Cole, who collected the bounce off the back boards but couldn’t get a shot off before the backcheck caught him. Atlanta’s transition game was sharp, collecting turnovers and moving them into the Canes’ end before Carolina could react.
Tobias Enstrom put the Thrashers up 2-0 with under seven minutes left in the first after a good cycle down low. Nik Antropov shrugged a backhand pass from the corner to the open high slot as Enstrom darted in from the blueline to fire it home. Mark Stuart lazily skated Bryan Allen across the crease to screen Ward on the play.
Carolina looked more awake on the first shift of the second period. After Brandon Sutter peeled off a good shot while skating hard down the wing, Blake Wheeler had to close his hand on the puck in the slot to keep Chad LaRose from having a great chance. The ensuing power play produced a lot of shots, but Thrashers kept getting in front of them.
When shots weren’t blocked, Pavelec gloved them. Cole caught Atlanta on a line change but his open shot from the wing disappeared into the glove. Ward was solid as well, chesting an Evander Kane shot after he split the defense and came in alone.
The Canes finally broke through with eight minutes left in the period when their strategy of pursuing rebounds off open point shots paid off. Bryan Allen’s hard slapper bounced out to Troy Bodie in the high slot. Without hesitating, he fired it high as Jarome Samson provided traffic in front.
Within a goal, the Canes saw play open, and Ward had to thwart Kane at the crease’s edge with a strong pad save just after Bodie’s goal. Pavelec also stayed sharp, coming to the side of the crease to face Sutter’s sneaky try from the back boards to bank it off the goalie’s back.
Stillman nearly tied the game before the second intermission, clanking a one-timer off the goalpost on a great diagonal feed from Cole as Staal drove the net.
Most of the third period was played in the kind of desperation mode that’s usually reserved for the last three minutes. In the first minute of the third, the Canes drew a penalty but failed to convert on a number of frantic chances in the slot. Skinner created a perfect tip chance for Cole but Pavelec kicked it out. Then the goalie located a pair of strong shots from Tim Gleason. The power play seemed effective when Skinner ran it from the edge of the circle, along the boards, something that Carolina should consider trying out a bit more.
It took a thinking-man’s play to even the score. On a delayed offsides call against Atlanta, Cory Stillman held the puck just inside his blueline, knowing that the looming Zach Bogosian could not come across to defend him because the whistle would blow. This time and space allowed Stillman to fling a beauty of a stretch pass to a streaking Cole, who had just leapt over the boards, for a breakaway. Cole froze Pavelec and then beat his blocker to tie the game 2-2 with under eight minutes left.
Both teams had chances to win in regulation down the stretch. With a shade over two minutes left, Ward fought off a Kane snap shot. Pitkanen thankfully played the pop-fly rebound with a high stick as Kane was charging at the net for the puck. In the final minute, the rebound of a Jay Harrison point shot came to Sutter in the low circle but Pavelec robbed him with a quick flash of the pad.
The 4-on-4 overtime was over almost the moment it began. Pavelec didn’t get an assist on the winning goal, but it seemed that his direction of the rebound of Jokinen’s shot sprung the winning rush. If that rebound was intentional, it was brilliant. If not, it was really lucky.