With their season seemingly hanging in the balance, the Carolina Hurricanes erased a one-goal, third-period deficit, then prevailed in the shootout to defeat the Washington Capitals, 3-2. Things turned even better for Carolina when Buffalo, who sits in the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race, lost in regulation to Toronto. The Sabres now lead the Canes by three points, and each team has six games left in the regular season. Here are five observations from Tuesday's win.
1. Not only was Tuomo Ruutu buzzing around the Caps net all night, but the 28-year-old's physical play seemed to take Washington captain Alex Ovechkin off his game. It started with a hit on Dennis Wideman. Ruutu had lined up the Capitals defenseman, but Wideman's lost his edge after bumping the boards with his skate, leading to what looked like a high hit from Ruutu, but was truly just a case of Wideman falling at an inopportune time. With Wideman on the ice suffering from some kind of lower body injury, Ovechkin took exception and spent the remainder of the game seeking out Ruutu. At the end of the day, that's a clear check mark on the Canes' ledger. Ruutu and Jeff Skinner were Carolina's biggest threats all night, and Ruutu outpointed (one assist to no points) and outhit (eight to five) Ovechkin, and Carolina got the two points.
3. For the first time in some time, Carolina's fourth line looked overmatched. The line, which included Patrick Dwyer, Jerome Samson and either Jiri Tlusty or Drayson Bowman, registered no shots on goal and was often pinned in the Canes end for prolonged shifts. Dwyer did record two shots, but one came while centering the top line — with Eric Staal off for repairs after being cut with a high stick (more to come on this) — and the other during the penalty kill. Part of that is being on the road and having the opposition using their final change to get an advantage, but overall the line lacked the puck possession and hustle that has made it useful down the stretch.
4. The missed high stick that left Staal gushing blood on the ice was one of several missed calls last night. Luckily for Carolina, it didn't cost them the game like it did Saturday, when the Lightning scored the game-winning goal on the power play after Erik Cole was called for goaltender interference despite being both held and then shoved into Tampa Bay's Mike Smith. The officials also missed a high stick by Joni Pitkanen, and several times during the night players were tied up, tripped or impeded without a whistle from the officials. For the most part, I'm not one to blame the refs night after night, but recently the Canes have been part of games featuring sub-par officiating.
5. Cam Ward was again the straw that stirred Carolina's drink. While the two goals he allowed weren't unstoppable, he made several other stops that kept the Hurricanes in the game. Some were examples of Ward's ability to properly position himself, others showed off his anticipation skills and explosiveness, and at least one — Ovechkin's shot that hit and damaged the shaft or butt end of Ward's stick — was downright lucky. But in the end, it was another monstrous performance by arguably the game's top money goaltender. The Canes will ask him to do the same again Wednesday when the team hosts Montreal in another must-win game.