RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The Carolina Hurricanes made a lot of changes over the summer. But game No. 1 of this season could have been mistaken for game No. 83 of last season.
Canes-killers Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier both scored in the second period—Lecavalier on a two-man advantage that seemed to break Carolina's spirit—and Tampa's wunderkind Steven Stamkos added two assists. Reigning Calder Trophy-winner Jeff Skinner notched the only goal for the home side to get his second NHL season off to a good start.
Buoyed by an optimistic crowd, the Canes started strong. Former Cane Jeff O'Neill sounded the hurricane warning siren before the game, and a few longtime fans even shouted "O" over the line "O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave" to honor him during the national anthem. Once the puck dropped, an the tension of the opening minutes subsided, Carolina looked good.
Just over three minutes in Anthony Stewart rocketed the length of the ice in his Canes debut, wristing a shot that a net-crashing Tim Gleason nearly rushed inside the post to Tampa goaltender Dwayne Roloson’s glove side. After a line change, Tuomo Ruutu flicked a deft pass out of the corner that arrived in the crease at the same time as a darting Skinner, but the sophomore couldn't get his stick on it to hit the open net. On the next shift, Patrick Dwyer hit new-arrival Alexei Ponikarovsky in the low slot for a great backhand chance the Roloson just managed to kick out. The Canes were coming in waves, but not finishing the plays.
Meanwhile Cam Ward seemed in mid-season form, recalling Arturs Irbe with a sliding two-pad stack save on Ryan Malone's golden chance about seven minutes in.
The Canes broke through on a play that Skinner both started and finished. Driving to the net, he drew an interference penalty. As action continued on the delayed call, Ruutu worked the puck around to Gleason for a shot that Ruutu redirected on net. Skinner cleaned up the rebound and the Canes had the early lead.
Carolina looked very good for the remainder of the period, connecting on crisp diagonal passes in the Tampa zone and peppering Roloson with shots. But after squandering a power play to open the second period, the wheels began to wobble.
Five minutes in, Stamkos pounced on a neutral zone turnover and instantly feathered a perfect pass to St. Louis breaking in all alone in the slot, but the puck evaded the diminutive winger's stick. The Lightning kept at it, though, as Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen failed to clear the puck. Both Canes stared down at it, thinking the other would scoop it off the lip of the crease. Stamkos, instead, barged in and tapped a pass to St. Louis at the side of the goal, and the game was tied.
The goal rattled the Canes, who allowed a shorthanded breakaway to Nate Thompson that Ward had to stifle, as well as a breakaway to Stamkos that Pitkanen somehow foiled before the scorer could make a move on Ward.
And then, with 2:29 left in the second period, a collapse. In his first NHL game, Justin Faulk showed rookie jitters at the top of the offensive zone, firing an ill-advised point shot off the high forward’s shins and then taking an interference call to prevent another breakaway. To make matters worse, Jussi Jokinen chirped something unsportsmanlike enough to the official to draw a simultaneous minor.
It took Tampa only 19 seconds to convert on the 5-on-3 advantage for a lead they would not relinquish. Almost casually, Lecavalier potted a rebound of a Stamkos wrister to Ward’s blocker side, giving Tampa its first lead of the season. And the boos rained down.
"I said something to the referee, and it's my fault," a contrite Jokinen managed after the game. "I have to keep my mouth shut. Referees do their job, and I have to do my job."
Carolina stiffened to kill the rest of the Lightning man advantage. Faulk redeemed himself with a nice puck clear in traffic. St. Louis had what looked like a golden chance to net his second goal of the game to Ward’s side in the waning seconds, but the shot clattered off a stick to the corner.
As the third period opened Tampa shifted into their stifling 1-3-1 system that proved so hard to solve for the latter half of last season. Designed to pounce on both the forecheck and the backcheck, it took advantage of Carolina's sluggish breakout passing, hemming in the Canes.
It's situations like these—down a goal in the third and needing an emotional spark—where this team will miss Erik Cole, departed to greener pastures in Montreal. As minutes ticked off the clock, Carolina tried to press, drawing a power play when Malone decked Staal, but they couldn't penetrate Roloson despite their best man-advantage puck movement of the night. Jokinen slapped a smart shot-pass to Sutter in the slot, but his redirect smacked off the goaltender's pad.
Frustration built, and Staal released it. The captain bumped Roloson behind the Tampa net after the goalie cleared the puck, Roloson flopped, and Staal went off grumbling to the box. Carolina summoned a kill, but let up with just 10 seconds left in the power play. A Marc-Andre Bergeron point shot crawled through Ward and Steve Downie outmuscled Gleason to chop it home.
If the air didn't leave the building at that moment, then it did just 10 seconds later as the Canes, sulking through the ensuing center-ice face-off, let Adam Hall walk in alone. Suddenly, what had been a one-goal game was a 4-1 deficit.
Malone punctuated the win, potting a Teddy Purcell pass behind Ward with three minutes left.
This is just the first game of the season, and one must take the long view. "We weren't quite ready," Ruutu shrugged in the locker room amidst hurried packing for the flight to Washington. "We just have to get this out of the way and try to win tomorrow."
It's difficult to know if Carolina's star is rising, falling, or frozen on the horizon. In the salary cap era, teams have been known to leap from the bottom of the standings as blue-chip draft picks electrify a lineup. But teams hovering in the middle of the standings, where the Canes finished last year, can stagnate there. Carolina looked a lot like they did last season: promising, but not quite there.
"Five-on-five, I liked the way we were going to the net. I liked the way we started the game," Coach Paul Maurice noted afterwards, pointing to penalties as the causal factor in the loss. This is a team that cannot afford such lapses. As the forward lines find their way together, trying to match creators with closers, the Canes can’t be soft on the back of the play.
Another familiar storyline from last season played out in the faceoff circles. Eric Staal was brutalized there, winning only six of 22 draws. His failure at the dot was particularly evident to open Canes power plays in the Tampa zone. Instead of keeping the pressure on the visitors, Carolina would lose the draw, chase the iced puck back behind their own net, and attempt to re-enter the offensive zone to set up the power play. His inability in the circle essentially cut a man advantage in half. Maybe Brandon Sutter, who centered the second power play unit and won 12 of his 17 draws, could help the Canes use their shiny new power play toys better. Tomas Kaberle only fired his able point shot a couple of times. Big Ponikarovsky didn't have much of a chance to cause problems in front of Roloson.
Carolina tries to avoid an 0-2 start to the season in the nation's capital Saturday night.