RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The "Cardiac" Canes won this game in their locker room during the second intermission.
Unlikely hero Joni Pitkanen slapped the winner into the far corner of the net over Al Montoya's glove with a minute left in overtime after Erik Cole had tied the game with under five minutes to go in regulation, providing a cathartic moment for over 17,000 fans in Raleigh whose restlessness had begun to roll over into an ugly exasperation.
Even with the win, the Canes remain in ninth in the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres, who have two games in hand on Carolina. The New York Rangers, who have discovered their scoring touch and thumped the Canadiens 6-3, hold the seven spot, four points ahead of the Sabres and Canes.
"We came off it a bit in the second, and between the second and third we had a good talk in here and came out of it desperate," Jeff Skinner summed afterward. Facing one of his prime competitors for the Calder Trophy for best rookie in speedster Michael Grabner, Skinner notched his 25th goal and set up Pitkanen's winner with an artful pass right into the big Finn's wheelhouse.
Grabner matched Skinner, assisting on Frans Nielsen's goal and scoring one of his own on one of his game-high nine shots. The waiver-wire pickup threatened on practically every shift.
Montoya's glove, however, had no such mojo. On the late tying goal, Cory Stillman shrugged the puck out to Cole, who was rotating into the vacant slot. Cole took just a moment to cock his frame in order to shoot the puck high, and Montoya's glove was late. The goalie froze in the pose as the Canes celebrated, as if he was asking the mitt "Why?"
Pitkanen's hard one-timer also beat Montoya's glove high. Skinner curled out of the corner and slid the puck to the defenseman in the high circle for only his third goal of a season during which fans have frequently shouted "Shoot!" at him only to see him slide the puck over to his defensive partner or passively dump it low for a forward to battle for.
"I decided to shoot," Pitkanen said, with a slight, sly smile after the game. He was soon drowned out by Chad LaRose shouting down the locker room hallway "Two-Five! Joni Pitkanen, baby!"
Perhaps this is a turning point for Pitkanen's year. All of his teammates were excited to see him uncork his famed shot. "I tend to flinch when he shoots on me," Ward said. "You know, he's got so much skill and he brings a lot to our team. He really picked up his game in that third period and showed what kind of a player he is. He easily could have turned the other way but he was willing to fight for that challenge, and he got rewarded for it."
But the lead was short-lived. After Ward fought off Grabner’s slapper from the dot, Nielsen scooped the rebound inside the post on Ward’s blocker side before the goalie could scoot to the post.
Grabner gave the Isles the lead just three minutes into the second period on a play emblematic of the Canes' lapse. Eric Staal cleanly lost a faceoff to Nielsen in the Carolina zone and then failed to battle for either the puck or to get in a shooting lane. Travis Hamonic's point shot skittered through to Ward and Grabner fished the rebound out of his skates for a fairly easy goal as he cruised the crease.
Carolina gets three days off now before heading to Ottawa for a Tuesday night game. In the meantime, they have to sit and watch the Sabres play their games in hand.