RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Cam Ward was talking, but you couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Clearly, the guys are excited,” deadpanned the unflappable goalie.
The Hurricanes gave themselves an early Christmas present Friday night, topping the Ottawa Senators 2-1 on an overtime goal from Tuomo Ruutu. Ward, despite hardly seeing action for the first half of the contest, maintained his trademark calm to stop 22 shots.
But his teammates weren’t calm. They were laughing and shouting and joyful. And beneath that, relieved.
This game could have been a repeat of Wednesday’s emotional sinkhole, in which the Phoenix Coyotes overturned a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 win. As they have on more than a few nights this season, the Canes went into a shell the moment the Coyotes caught a break. When Carolina failed to dent Ottawa’s goalie Craig Anderson during 1:52 of a two-man advantage in the first period, and then gave up a tying goal to Filip Kuba despite outshooting the Senators 19-6, they could have buckled.
But they didn’t. Not this night. And during a season that hasn’t gone how the Canes had imagined it, that’s worth celebrating.
Carolina fired itself out of the tunnel as it has of late, denting Anderson before the game was three minutes old. On the fourth line’s first shift of the night, Andreas Nodl flung the puck to the crease from the corner. Riley Nash jousted for stick position with Matt Carkner there, and the puck clacked off the sticks and popped over Anderson’s right pad before he could swivel to face them.
The goal was initially given to Nash, which would have been his first NHL goal in just his second game. Video review awarded it, later to Nodl, his second in as many games. Nash at least got his first NHL point on the play, a nice consolation as he heads back to the Charlotte Checkers now that Tim Brent will return to the lineup Monday night.
As impressive as the goal was the next shift for the Canes. Eric Staal’s line mercilessly attacked the Ottawa zone with the kind of hunger for a quick second goal that Carolina needs more of. It didn’t pan out, but the Senators were reeling. Staal didn’t score on the night, but he had four shots, two more missed shots, and won 11 of 15 face-offs in the first period alone.
Sustained pressure usually means penalties and Ottawa obliged. Zack Smith and Eric Condra took hooking minors eight seconds apart, setting up an extended two-man advantage for the home squad. It was a chance to blow the game open, but it almost handed the game back to the Sens.
Staal and Jussi Jokinen played catch behind the goal to start, a kind of upside-down power play that tried to catch Anderson looking over the wrong shoulder. But he stayed square to the traffic in front of him and blocked the shots that his defenders didn’t.
With 40 seconds left in the five-on-three, coach Kirk Muller called timeout to rest and settle his team. It lent gravity to the moment, as the fans summoned a din in anticipation of a goal. But all the Canes managed was a blistering point shot from Jaroslav Spacek that Anderson blockered to the screen.
If the missed opportunity wasn’t a reason for the Canes to sulk, Kuba sure supplied one with his team’s only goal in the waning minutes of the period. Stepping into the zone to catch a crisp diagonal pass from Nick Foligno, Kuba wristed it through a Daniel Alfredsson screen to tie the game.
There would be no sulking, however, on this night.
The second period was much like the first, with Anderson bailing his team out shift after shift. First he gloved a point blast from Bryan Allen that changed direction twice off sticks from each team. Then Justin Faulk’s hammer shot from the high slot thudded off one pad and Ruutu’s rebound chance thudded off the other.
The game became a bit of a grind. Staal took a puck off his cheek and headed down the tunnel for repairs. Once he returned he wiped out twice and stood on the bench as the trainers sharpened his skates with a stone. Both teams, meanwhile, missed the net with shots, aware that both goalies would stop anything but the perfect corner shot.
With just under five minutes in the second, Chad LaRose sprung Staal on a breakaway that brought the crowd to its feet. But he couldn’t beat Anderson between the pads. The Canes captain skidded to the boards behind the goal and lay there contemplating his fate for a full five seconds before slinking off.
Before the clock ran out on the second, Faulk foiled Alfredsson on what would have been the Swede’s 400th career goal, lifting his stick at the end of a two-on-one to keep the game tied.
The third period wasn’t exactly a thriller as neither team took any risks early on. Mike Hoffman hit the post to Ward’s glove side six minutes in. Just past the midpoint, Spacek tried to step up to play a puck in the neutral zone and nearly hung Allen out to dry behind him but Ward bailed them out. Those two sentences sum up 10 minutes of hockey and might be more interesting reading that it was watching.
But then things got interesting. The refs called their only penalty on Carolina, a gift of a tripping call on Spacek that Foligno exaggerated like a soccer player. Although the Canes killed the power play without event, it seemed to anger them, and Allen and agitator Chris Neil shoved after whistles for the remainder of the night.
Ruutu had a golden chance to put the Canes ahead after the penalty expired, cruising across the slot with a fat rebound, but he couldn’t wrist the puck over Anderson’s pad. Ruutu had more time than he realized and hurried the shot, clacking his stick on the ice once he realized how open he’d been.
Jason Spezza, the Ottawa sniper, lurked all night and nearly struck with about three minutes left in regulation, speeding down the left wing and flinging a mid-stride shot that surprised Tim Gleason and sped wide of the far post before Ward could react to it.
The clock bled down, setting up a swift and satisfying overtime. First, Gleason laid himself out in front of a rocket slapshot from Sergei Gonchar on an early shift. Taking the shot off his boot, Gleason hobbled off.
Anderson juggled and held a wrister from Ruutu, setting up a face-off. Carolina won it and moved the puck around the perimeter. Jokinen scampered around the horn and dropped the puck to Jay Harrison, who cranked a slapshot. In traffic, Ruutu tracked the puck down for a tip-in goal past Anderson’s arm. And the celebration was on.
Could it be a turnaround moment for the season? It’s unlikely, as the Canes are looking up at all the teams in the conference. But for a night, the standings weren’t what the game was about.
Feeling the joy of a win. Enjoying a happy locker room. And taking that into the next game. The Canes are a happy crew for now.