For the second straight game, the Carolina Hurricanes rallied in the third period to force overtime, only to fall in the extra session, losing 2-1 to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Unlike Monday's loss to Florida where the Canes seemed uninspired for the majority of the game, Wednesday's game turned into a goaltending duel between two of hockey's top netminders. Here are five observations from the overtime loss to the Rangers.
1. Cam Ward and Henrik Lundqvist traded remarkable saves throughout the game, going into the third period scoreless before New York finally punched in the night's first tally. Carolina was able to respond, giving each team a much-deserved point before the Rangers nabbed the extra one in overtime. It was a matchup of two goalies jockeying for a spot in the All-Star Game, and their numbers are remarkably similar. Both goalies have 17 wins (Ward: 17-1-5; Lundqvist: 17-12-3) and are among the league leaders in save percentage (Ward: .925; Lundqvist: .923). Lundqvist holds an edge in goals-against average (2.34 to 2.55), but Ward has made 159 more saves in 87 more minutes. Lundqvist is also tied for the league lead in shutouts with five.
The problem both might have in punching their ticket to Raleigh's midseason showcase is the NHL's edict that each team be represented in the All-Star Game. That could give an edge to Florida's Tomas Vokoun or St. Louis' Jaroslav Halak, whose teams lack another solid candidate for inclusion. Eric Staal will definitely make the team for Carolina, and brother Marc is a possibility for the Blueshirts. It would be a shame if either or both of Ward and Lundqvist, who are the primary reason for their teams still being in the playoff push at the midway point, were not part of the festivities at the end of the month.
2. Despite the salary cap, there is still a significant gap between the NHL's haves and have-nots. That was illustrated Wednesday when one of the league's premier franchises hosted small-market Carolina. Not only are the Rangers pushed tight against the salary ceiling, but they have nearly $9 million being paid out to Wade Redden and Todd White without it costing them a dime against the cap. On top of assigning those two to the AHL to make room, the Rangers (like Toronto) have been able to lure undrafted players to the Big Apple with money and the glitz and glamor of New York City. The Canes have their share of undrafted players in Carolina (Chad LaRose) or their system (Jerome Samson), but those players were/have been brought along slowly and were initially signed without fanfare. New York won a bidding war for undrafted college standout Matt Gilroy prior to the 2009-10 season, then signed Olympic standout Mats Zuccarello-Aasen (now just Zuccarello) prior to this campaign, and both were able to reach the NHL in their first pro season and are on the ledger for $2.1 million and $900,000, respectively, when in the NHL this season. That's a $3 million chance teams like Carolina cannot afford to take — and one New York used to get their only two goals in a win.
3. On the game's first goal, Brandon Dubinsky won a battle in the corner with Joe Corvo to feed Gilroy for the point shot that beat Ward. It wasn't Corvo losing the battle that was disheartening, but rather that he was caught posturing for the officials when he lost his stick during the sequence. Corvo's was slow to recover his stick and therefore was just getting to the right of the net when Gilroy’s shot beat Ward. The concern wasn't so much that Corvo was caught on one play, but that he is an emotional and streaky player and in the past he has been prone to getting down on his game after even just one mistake. So if was good to see Corvo quickly redeem himself by getting a shot through to Lundqvist five minutes later that Staal deposited for the tying score.
4. Speaking of that goal, Carolina's captain once again came through when they needed him most. On an extra shift centering Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu, Staal won the faceoff then crashed the net, beating brother Marc to the rebound and slamming home the goal that would force overtime. It was his 19th goal, which ranks him seventh in the NHL, and his 39 points are tied for 15th in the league. Staal has also improved dramatically in the faceoff circle, upping his percentage to 45.2 after getting off to a terrible start (along with the rest of the Canes). That still ranks him in the league's bottom 10, but when you dig the kind of hole Staal did at the beginning of the year, it takes a while to climb out of it.
5. Paul Maurice continued to juggle his lines, not only moving players up and down but switching Ruutu back to center and Skinner to wing. Staal opened the game with Brandon Sutter and Patrick Dwyer, but spent the majority of his time with Erik Cole and Zach Boychuk. The captain also spent time with members of the fourth line and, as mentioned above, double-shifted with other duos. Maurice has said he would move Staal around to get him the best matchup and switch up who plays center based on the opponent, but one has to wonder if doing so — specifically the latter — is a case of Maurice letting his opponents dictate how the game will be played rather than trying to find the identity he's said the team needs to locate. While the Canes undoubtedly need energy to compete each night, chemistry also goes a long way.