PNC ARENA—The first time the little boy threw the hat, it barely left his hand. The second time, held aloft by his dad, he bounced it off the top of the glass and it fell back in his arms. Finally he threw harder and got it onto the ice.
Third time’s a charm. Just ask Eric Staal.
“I wanted the win more but once you get the puck on your stick and there’s no goalie, you always want to make sure you cash in,” a smiling Staal said afterwards amid the bedlam of a locker room that was both celebrating and packing up gear. The Canes complete a home-and-home series in Buffalo on Friday night.
The big guns were big guns and the role players played their roles. Jeff Skinner added a pair of goals and Justin Faulk scored shorthanded. Zac Dalpe, Joni Pitkanen and Jordan Staal each had a pair of assists. Even Bobby Sanguinetti, the young defenseman who had struggled throughout the first two games, made nice plays.
Cam Ward found his form in goal, counting several old-school standup saves among his 30 stops on the night.
Staal’s hat trick was the 13th of his career.
Jason Pominville scored twice for the Sabres and Thomas Vanek had two assists for the Sabres. Jhonas Enroth had a busy night in net, stopping 32 shots, many of which were challenging saves.
After opening their home slate with a lackluster loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, the Canes showed their new vigor on the first shift on this night. Alexander Semin gave up his body to push a puck down the boards into the Buffalo zone, springing Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty on a two-on-one. Staal couldn’t beat Enroth with a wrist shot, but the decisive play announced the evening’s program: play is coming to the net.
The league leader in shots on goal coming into the game, Carolina took the first six shots of the game, several while killing three penalties in a scoreless but intense first period. Hitting was up and both teams were transitioning from defense to offense instantly. The coaches behind both benches stood with their arms folded proudly over their chests during one television timeout. There was nothing to say to the players—they were playing great.
Barely a minute into the second period, Jeff Skinner struck first for the Canes, shoveling a backhander off the underside of the crossbar and in. It looked like a replay of his goal Tuesday night against Tampa. He’ll be warmed up when it comes time to turn soil for a garden in the spring.
“I’ve got a smaller curve than most guys so it’s a little bit easier to get the puck up,” Skinner said of his stick after the game.
Skinner’s shot was a gem and the series of puck battles that his linemates won to lead up to it formed the setting. Through a defender’s stick check, Skinner scooted a puck off the end wall to Dalpe in the corner, who outreached a man to kick it out to Jordan Staal at the dot. Staal powered his one-time shot through a defenseman’s stick to get the puck to the crease, where Skinner found it after he shed a check.
If any one of those plays isn’t made, there’s no goal to be had. It would have just been gritty play in the corner and along the wall. But Carolina made those plays all night.
With Patrick Dwyer in the box for interference a few minutes later, Justin Faulk made the score 2-0, keeping the puck on a shorthanded 3-on-1 rush that caught Buffalo changing behind the play. Faulk’s off-speed shot found its way under Enroth’s pad.
“Yeah, I was trying to pick a spot—my stick broke,” Faulk grinned facetiously. “It went in the net, let’s just leave it at that.”
“My stick broke and it fooled them. It fooled me.”
Buffalo dug deep and summoned a tie in the middle of the period. First, Jordan Leopold’s point shot bounced off Vanek’s legs as the Czech winger engaged with Jordan Staal at the top of the goal crease. Cody Hodgson smacked the rebound in before Ward could react to the puck’s sudden change of direction.
Not two minutes later, Pominville redirected a Christian Ehrhoff slapshot in. Checked to his elbows and knees in the slot, Pominville nonetheless angled his stickblade perfectly to make the play. The game was tied 2-2.
But Carolina rallied in thrilling fashion. With six minutes left in the second, Skinner darted behind the Buffalo goal to pick Hodgson clean. Before any Sabre could react, Skinner wrapped the puck around the post behind Enroth.
Then Eric Staal took off up ice after he won the ensuing center-ice faceoff back to Pitkanen and Jamie McBain, who replaced Joe Corvo in the lineup. McBain hit Staal in stride, catching Robyn Regehr and Tyler Ennis flatfooted. Staal slid the puck beneath a surprised Enroth just 9 seconds after Skinner’s goal to make it 4-2 Carolina.
Ward then stifled Buffalo’s response to the outburst with an important save, blockering a good Jochen Hecht shot to the corner when Buffalo came in 2-on-0 after a bad Carolina line change. Ward, who had been victimized over his shoulders for three goals in the first two games, made the save from the crouch rather than going down in the butterfly.
As the second period closed, the near-sellout crowd was buzzing. The teams combined for six goals and 38 shots in the period, 21 of them by the Canes. It was exhilarating hockey to watch, and the third period would be no different.
Buffalo opened the final frame with momentum. First, Steve Ott and Jay Harrison nearly fought after a corner scrum. Then, Vanek made a stellar play to get the Sabres back within a goal.
Scampering from the circle across an opening in the high slot, Vanek waited for Ward to leave the near post to follow him. Vanek wrapped a sick no-look pass around his body to Pominville below the dot for an easy goal into the space that Ward had just vacated.
Ward stiffened though. Staying again in the crouch, he bashed down a great Hodgson chance from 10 feet with his glove before holding his own against Ennis barging down the slot.
The Canes had trouble finding their earlier flow throughout the period but the kept working hard to defend the lead. That paid off around the midpoint when Pitkanen pinched well down the boards to steal the puck from Pominville. The Finn didn’t miss a beat, throwing a diagonal pass out to Eric Staal atop the opposite circle. Staal’s wrister beat Enroth’s glove and the captain celebrated with a roundhouse fist pump as the two-goal lead was restored.
After killing a late Jordan Staal penalty, the Canes executed the kind of brilliant endgame that must dance in the heads of coaches as they go to sleep at night. Clamping down in the neutral zone, Carolina repeatedly took the puck from the Sabres and attacked the Buffalo net. Enroth fought bravely but his teammates could not approach Ward to try to respond.
Staal’s empty-netter with 1:28 remaining sealed the win.
Buffalo will undoubtedly start Ryan Miller in net on Friday. But coach Kirk Muller had a different answer when asked who he’ll put in net to complete the back-to-back games.
“Same,” he said and then laughed heartily, feeling the joy of the first win of the year.