RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—In the past, packs of coyotes hunted the American prairie, swarming their prey. Today, they have adapted to scavenge off the humans who’ve encroached upon their habitat, rummaging dumpsters for suburban food scraps to survive. It’s a lot easier to pick a chicken carcass out of the trash than it is to bring down a deer.
Unfortunately, in this extended metaphor, the Canes are the dumpster and its decaying buffet. And while Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart are not exactly a moo shu pork takeout carton and a Chik-fil-a to-go bag with a few errant waffle fries left at the bottom, this team is looking more like pitched-out leftovers as the losses mount.
And hockey’s actual equivalent of coyotes attended the game in abundance: scouts.
Ten teams sent representatives to the game, looking to scavenge the Carolina lineup after the holiday trade blackout lifts on Dec. 27. True, they could have been there to scope out the Phoenix players, but the scratch-and-claw Coyotes are subsisting just beneath the Western Conference playoff line. The Canes, however, have set up a sofa bed and ping-pong table in the Eastern Conference basement.
The head-scratcher is that when you place the lineups of these two teams next to each other, there’s hardly a difference. Both are small-market clubs with budgets near the league’s salary floor. Both ice only one real scoring line. Both piece together rosters with second-tier free agents and minor-league call-ups. But one team came away with a win. And the other kept scratching its head in frustration.
Former Cane Ray Whitney acknowledged the crowd just over two minutes in after Jay Harrison brought a bit too much zeal to a check along the boards. Cam Ward made a nice scoop save on a Keith Yandle shot, but Whitney slapped a rising shot home from the top of the circle to Ward’s glove side on the next sequence. Whitney, still a point-a-game player at age 39 out in the desert, has 12 goals on the year.
Coyote captain Shane Doan nearly doubled the lead a couple minutes later after Ponikarovsky’s hesitation in the neutral zone hung his teammates out to dry. The odd man on an odd-man rush, Doan zinged a shot that caromed around the crossbar and post. The referee immediately waved his arms and play continued.
Another former Cane scorer, Radim Vrbata, one-timed a smart shot off a crossing pass from Martin Hanzal at the seven-minute mark, but Ward slid across to pad the puck out. Justin Faulk had to make a desperation clear to end the sequence when Hanzal flashed into the crease to almost bang a puck home with Ward down.
Carolina survived the push and tied the game at the period’s midpoint just as a Derek Morris penalty expired. At the end of a power play that is looking very promising of late, the puck found its way through the three layers that coach Kirk Muller has implemented for a Tuomo Ruutu goal to make it 1-1.
The play happened quickly, with Morris stepping out of the box but unable to rejoin play before the puck went in. Jussi Jokinen wristed a shot from the point that was blocked by the defense into the slot. Ponikarovsky chopped it off of goalie Jason LaBarbera. And Ruutu cleaned up the rebound. Tic, tac, toe.
Tying the score, however, seemed to placate the Canes. Having had two days off and no pregame skate, the team should have had a lot of jump. But they were stretching out after whistles like it was a scrimmage. And the tie score appeared to satisfy their competitive level for the time being.
The intermission entertainment took a note from the home team. After technical difficulties scuttled a skating routine by Stormy, the Canes’ porcine mascot, and one of the Storm Squad cheerleaders, the Raleigh Ringers—an all-bells ensemble—covered Vince Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” Christmas special theme. It was rousing in the way that an alarm clock was rousing. My right hand kept wanting to swat a snooze bar for a few minutes’ respite.
But Carolina brought more out of the locker room for the second period, and it paid off when they took advantage of a couple of breaks.
After a high-pressure power play that didn’t score—if that were an official stat then the Canes might be one of the league leaders in HPPPTDS—Jaroslav Spacek dumped the puck in on a routine rush. But it bounced strangely off Raffi Torres right to Andreas Nodl in the slot. Nodl fired his first goal of the season past LaBarbera’s tardy glove at the six-minute mark to make it 2-1 Canes.
After another HPPPTDS in which Eric Staal looked like the all-star that he was last year, Jiri Tlusty extended the Carolina lead to 3-1. He flicked the puck into the crease to arrive as Patrick Dwyer cat in from the far side, but LaBarbera saved Dwyer the trouble by flubbing the puck with his glove. It popped between the goalie’s legs and in.
It was at this juncture, unfortunately, that the game turned. The Canes have been a fragile team all year, blanching and becoming shaky whenever their opponent rallies. Just over a minute past the Tlusty goal, Cal O’Reilly scored, and the Canes went into their familiar shell.
The goal was unlikely. A fourth-liner defended passably in the Carolina crease by Spacek, leaning forward on one skate to wrist a perfect wrist shot on a bad angle over Ward’s glove-side shoulder just under the crossbar. And the Canes still led 3-2 at that point, even closing out the period to take that lead into the third.
But the Canes are fragile. And fragile things break.
Perhaps the outcome would have been different if Brandon Sutter and Dwyer could have closed the deal on a two-on-one just three minutes into the third. LaBarbera made his best save of the night, diving and lunging to absorb Dwyer’s tap chance.
Phoenix tied the game on the next sequence as Drayson Bowman couldn’t stay with Lauri Korpikoski as he looped the Canes’ goal, centering to Rostislav Klesla who bumped Harrison out of the slot. Klesla’s hack at the puck was enough that it crawled through Ward’s equipment, stopping before it reached the back of the goal.
These are not highlight-reel goal-scorers. O’Reilly’s goal was his second. Klesla’s was his first. These are low-effort goals. Or, one shudders to think, not-enough-talent goals. Korpikoski shrugged off Bowman like a windbreaker. Klesla dismissed Harrison’s presence as if waving flies off a burger at a picnic. Table scraps, picked out of a dumpster.
Just past the midpoint of the third, the Coyotes finally reclaimed the lead on another disheartening play that was too much like the previous goal. With Jokinen and Hanzal in the box after one of the few netmouth scrums of an otherwise cordial game, Korpikoski played the part of the “under-defended guy in the crease,” popping in a centering feed from Morris who played “guy allowed to loop the goal uncontested.” Staal and Tim Gleason flanked Korpikoski and watched the goal happen. Neither had their sticks on the ice.
The minutes ticked off and the Canes summoned a few rushes. Muller notably put Riley Nash—playing his first NHL game—out to take two offensive-zone face-offs in the final minute with Ward already on the bench. But the best chance the Canes had to tie was a desperation centering feed that jumped Sutter’s stick with about five seconds left.
Carolina’s homestand continues with the Senators visiting Friday and the Devils due the day after Christmas.