RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Whether or not the Hurricanes make the playoffs this season, this will be known as the season Jeff Skinner came to Raleigh.
Carolina’s other talented rookie, Jamie McBain, added a pair of goals of his own, and Joni Pitkanen and Cory Stillman also tallied as All-Star Montreal starter Carey Price was chased after two periods.
Mike Cammallieri and P. K. Subban scored power play goals for the Habs, but Montreal never led in the game and often struggled to get the puck out of their zone just to change their players. Then the new players would gird themselves for the next Carolina assault.
In other action, the Buffalo Sabres leapfrogged the New York Rangers in the standings by beating them 1-0 despite missing Ryan Miller in net. With 84 points, Carolina sits three back of those teams with five games remaining. The Canes will need help to claim a place in the Stanley Cup tournament.
But if they play like they did tonight, they will need one of those teams merely to stumble. Cam Ward was strong in net, particularly early on when teams traded chances at a breakneck pace, saving 38 shots. Team defense was a big part of that, too. The Canadiens could not pounce on rebounds as they were instantly cleared by ferocious backchecking. From a skating standpoint, it was likely Carolina’s best game of the season.
In the early going, it looked as if a twin goalie duel was in store. A couple of minutes in, Cory Stillman got the puck to the crease as Eric Staal arrived there for two stuff chances, but Price gave no ground. A minute later, Ryan White’s backhand fling from a corner freed James Wisniewski at the side of the Canes’ goal but Ward stayed tight to the goal post while preventing Wisniewski from walking out in front.
Carolina would crash Montreal’s net for a good scoring chance that Price would stop. The Habs’ defenders would transition quickly enough to offense that the Canes skaters would be caught slightly behind the play. Montreal would rush up ice for a good scoring chance of their own that Ward would fend off, springing a Carolina rush the other way with the Montreal forwards caught deep. It was back and forth like this for eleven minutes.
Then Skinner took over.
After Tuomo Ruutu kept a loose puck in play with hard work in the corner, Skinner barged into the zone, blew past Scott Gomez in the high circle, and froze Price with a slightly delayed wrist shot that found just enough room below his pads.
The goal ignited a Carolina surge that led to Skinner’s next marker five minutes later. Ruutu, who battered the Habs relentlessly all night, flicked the puck off the wall to a cutting Skinner. The rookie stickhandled like a sidewinder, hypnotizing Price, before roofing it over his glove-side shoulder for a 2-0 lead.
The Canes were decisive and physical to a man. When Jeff Halpern closed in on Ward on a similar chance in the final minutes for the first, Brandon Sutter simply smashed him into the goalpost before he could shoot the puck. No fishing around with the stick for the puck. Halpern skidded to rest against the back boards and the play was blown dead.
Montreal had a brief flicker of hope in this game early in the second. On a power play that eschewed point shots in favor of perimeter passing and movement without the puck, Mike Cammalleri collected a fat rebound and flipped it over Ward’s pad.
But Montreal was within a goal for less than a minute. After Staal cruised the crease on a tip chance from Erik Cole, McBain pulled the puck off the wall and fired it straight past Price. Staal didn’t get an assist on the play but his presence drew two defenders and opened a lane for the shot.
Three minutes later, another Carolina swarm put the Canes up by three. Skinner went to his knees battling for a loose puck in the slot. Despite a Montreal player on top of him, he pushed a soft drop pass to Ruutu, whose slap shot was blocked out to Pitkanen just inside the blueline. The big Finn unleashed his shot and holstered his stick as he skated away.
Ruutu took his physical play to the next level early in the third period. He checked giant Hal Gill into the boards at the end of the Carolina bench. The two sections of glass along the tunnel into the Canes’ dressing room exploded with a deafening crack, and Carolina equipment manager Bob Gorman ducked for cover as it nearly crashed down on top of him. No one, however, was hurt. The rink echoed with the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” during the lengthy rink repair.
Once play resumed, Montreal drew a pair of power plays. The Canes expertly killed the first but yielded a quick goal to Subban off the opening faceoff of the second at the nine-minute mark of the period.
But Carolina would pull away as the minutes ticked down. Drayson Bowman fed McBain on a 2-on-1 with under five minutes to go. McBain’s wrist shot made Alex Auld look bad in the net.
Play became chippy in the final minutes as Hal Gill tried to engage Chad LaRose in a jousting match, but LaRose laughed him off. Tim Gleason, however, did not. Gleason and Benoit Pouliot were ejected in the ensuing scrum. Gill had to sit in the box and watch Cory Stillman tack a sixth goal onto the night, beating Auld high with just over two minutes to go.
Carolina has a few days to collect themselves before another pair of back-to-back games. Saturday they visit the New York Islanders before the huge showdown with Buffalo in Raleigh on Sunday.
Buffalo, meanwhile, will be visiting the Capitals on Saturday before coming to Raleigh. The Rangers have road games with the Isles and Flyers remaining this week.