Saturday, Feb 5, 2011, 7:00 PM EST
In the Hurricanes' locker room, there's a big white board with the Eastern Conference standings. It's been around since at least the Cup season, and it's updated every day with the results from around the NHL. Halfway down the board is a thick red line, and for most of the last two months, the Canes have been the first team underneath that red line. As we learned firsthand in 2008, that position is not one any team wants to find itself in.
A win tonight over the Atlanta Thrashers, in any form, will put the Canes above the red line for the first time since November 20. A loss will drop them three points back of the Thrashers in the race to the red line. Yes, it's too early to call this a must-win, but it's on the next level below that: a "sure-would-be-nice-to win".
With Jussi Jokinen out for another week to 10 days with a reaggravation of his lower-body injury from earlier this season, the Canes dropped two straight games to Boston and Toronto, the second resulting in a cancelled practice yesterday. There's no excuse for a pedestrian effort tonight. And while the Canes will still have two games in hand after tonight's game, it's a lot nicer to look ahead to those two games when you're sitting in eighth place than it is when you need three points from those two games to get to eighth.
It's not a stretch to say that tonight's game will determine how the next month unfolds. After all, the red line doesn't lie.
1:29 1st: I'm not sure if there's ever been a definition of what tension sounds like, but tonight's crowd might be a good indication. We're only a minute or so into the game and the crowd is...well, I don't want to call it silent, but it's pretty quiet. No question everyone's aware of the significance of this game.
4:02 1st: I must have missed the part where they outlawed the hip check. Someone call Rob Blake and make him aware of this development. Anyway, Patrick Dwyer goes to the box for kneeing on what looked like a perfectly legal play. If the crowd was quiet before, a bad call might be the thing that tilts them toward making some more noise.
6:12 1st: And now we get a Pavelec penalty for playing the puck outside the trapezoid. At this rate, a garden-variety interference penalty might rate a breaking news dispatch.
9:53 1st: Canes get lucky. A bad bounce comes right into the slot and Ward, who was way out of the net and could have easily deflected it back into his own goal, instead whirls around and actually manages to clear the puck out of the zone. Could have been catastrophic, instead it's still scoreless.
12:33 1st: Thrashers lead 1-0; Bergfors 11 (Little, Oduya) On a delayed penalty call, the Thrashers make it 1-0 on a goal the Canes could have prevented if they had executed their defensive assignments. First, Sergei Samsonov took a penalty on an attempted check of Dusitin Byfuglien, and if you're surprised by that sentence...well, you shouldn't be. Then, the puck came back to Johnny Oduya at the blue line, who fed Bryan Little, who faked a shot and passed instead to Nicklas Bergfors. Cam Ward had no prayer, but a well-timed stick check would have been nice to see.
18:17 1st: Ever since the Thrashers' goal they've been lining four men up at the blue line and daring the Canes to dump it past them. Boring, but effective - the Canes haven't had an answer for it yet.
End 1st: A hard-work penalty to Bryan Little for holding at 19:37 gives the Canes a power play for 1:37 to start the second period, after two solid pinches by Jay Harrison and Ian White to keep the zone late in the period. The Canes have outshot the Thrashers 12-11, but they're down by a goal after 20.
1:15 2nd: Leave it to Cam Ward to come up big when his team couldn't get anything going on the power play. Of course, he was helped by Rich Peverley conveniently hitting the far post off an Andrew Ladd centering pass. Nothing doing on the power play, and the Canes need something to take momentum back.
6:03 2nd: The Canes are getting way too cute with their passes. Erik Cole forced a turnover at the blue line, but instead of taking the time to set a play up with no Thrashers anywhere near him, he tried a behind-the-back pass to Eric Staal that, predictably, didn't connect and ended up giving the puck right back to the Thrashers.
8:17 2nd: And Leon's getting laaaaaaaaarger! Canes tie it at 1; Staal 26 (Ruutu, Skinner) (pp) Finally, the Canes break through with the man advantage. They've had all sorts of problems tonight with puck movement, as in they weren't doing it fast enough, but once they started with the crisp passes it paid off as Tuomo Ruutu found Staal at the bottom of the near circle. Staal's first shot went low and Pavelec kicked it out, but right back to Staal who roofed it over Pavelec's glove and let out a scream of exhiliration as the Canes got on the scoreboard for the first time since Tuesday.
14:10 2nd: Sure, the Canes haven't scored again, but ever since Staal's goal they've been pouring it on and the Thrashers have been back on their heels for multiple shifts in a row. Pavelec has stood on his head, but he's getting no help whatsoever from the Thrashers' defense, which looks completely lost. The Canes have done everything but score, and all four lines have had significant zone time.
18:20 2nd: Now here's something you don't see every day. Jeff Skinner drew a penalty (well, that's not too unusual) and the Thrashers were caught with too many men on the ice. Canes get a 5-on-3 for the full two minutes, which will carry over into the 3rd if they don't score.
End 2nd: And they didn't score, so the Canes will have :20 of a 5-on-3 to start the third period. Suffice it to say this is a rather pivotal moment in the game. The passing has been a bit on the light side, so if the Canes want to convert those passes need to get a bit crisper. Shots in the period were 15-9 Canes, who led overall 27-20.
:45 3rd: Nothing doing on the power play to start the period. Well, unless you want to count Ruutu going offside off the opening faceoff as "something". Yeah.
5:39 3rd: The Canes are doing everything they can to give the Thrashers the game. Allowing the Thrashers to have about 30 seconds of continuous zone time on a power play, Joni Pitkanen taking a penalty in his defensive zone on a power play, Erik Cole tripping Bryan Little to hand the Thrashers a 5-on-3...yeah, this game has had it all.
8:37 3rd: Canes go up 2-1! Sutter 12 (Tlusty, Pitkanen) And after the game Brandon Sutter's had tonight, he deserves it. A seemingly innocuous shot from the top of the near circle had eyes and it was perfectly placed in the top corner of the net to Pavelec's stick side to give the Canes their first lead in approximately forever.
12:14 3rd: Thrashers tie it at 2; Sopel 2 (unassisted) This is what happens when too many bodies park themselves in front of a goaltender. No fewer than four players were sitting in front of Cam Ward, and when Brent Sopel let a shot fly Ward couldn't track it and it went into the back of the net. It may have been tipped by Anthony Stewart at the top of the crease.
12:42 3rd: Canes back up by one; Tlusty 4 (Dwyer, White) Sure seems like the Canes have found a weakness in Pavelec with these 30-foot wristers. This time, it's Jiri Tlusty doing the dirty work, letting a shot fly from the far faceoff dot and handcuffing Pavelec just above his glove. A wonderfully-placed shot to give the Canes their second lead of the night.
18:34 3rd: Thrashers tie it again; Bogosian 4 (Little, Peverley) Not what the Canes wanted there. With Pavelec pulled for the extra attacker, Zach Bogosian wired a low wrister from 50 feet that eluded Ward thanks to a perfect Andrew Ladd screen.
End 3rd: The Thrashers really came on strong, pouring 13 shots on Ward in the third period. Both teams get a point, but if the Canes win the game they will be in 8th by virtue of a tiebreaker.
1:45 OT: Huge save by Ward. If the Canes win, barring a two-goal performance by someone, he deserves the first star. He's been enormous tonight.
3:48 OT: Canes win!!!! Cole 14 (McBain, Pitkanen) And of course, where did it come from? That's right, the dot in the far faceoff circle. Erik Cole went end-to-end, wristing a low shot that he later said he was just trying to get through the defenseman's legs past Pavelec and the Canes leapfrogged the Thrashers into 8th place in the Eastern Conference with a 4-3 comeback victory in overtime.
Postgame: It was obvious that the Canes knew the significance of this game. To a man, the locker room commentary was identical: not a must-win by any stretch, but a game of real significance in how the rest of the season would go.
Paul Maurice seemed almost relieved that his gamble of cancelling practice yesterday paid off, and while the Canes did give up a point to the Thrashers, their two points and their two additional wins over the Thrashers' total has put them above the red line in the locker room. Psychologically, it's huge: they still have two games in hand, and they now control their own destiny. Not a bad night's work.
Locker room audio: Erik Cole, Jiri Tlusty, Brandon Sutter, Paul Maurice
We're back at it on Friday, February 18, when the Canes welcome the Philadelphia Flyers to the RBC Center on Rod Brind'Amour Night. Be here early; the ceremony starts at 7 and the game's scheduled for an 8:00 faceoff.