Friday, Mar 18, 2011, 7:00 PM EDT
Three nights ago in Buffalo, the Hurricanes' playoff hopes took a big swing in the right direction. The next night, their chances fell right back down again. Tonight, the Canes hope the roller coaster swings in the other direction again.
Since last we saw the New York Islanders, in the final game before the All-Star Break that to this point has defined the Hurricanes' season, they've suddenly caught fire, and their play since the break ranks them in the top ten in the NHL. Leading the charge is former Rangers and Coyotes castoff goaltender Al Montoya, who is 7-3-3 since being acquired from Phoenix on February 9 and has stabilized what was becoming a comedy of errors in the Isles' net. The Canes have never faced Montoya, which might be a good thing given how anemic they've been in scoring goals lately.
As on Wednesday, the Canes will scratch Troy Bodie tonight, understandable for a team struggling to score goals but somewhat surprising given how tough the Isles have been playing recently. The Carolina defense will be tested by a sneaky-fast Islanders forward corps, led by the man who won the Fastest Skater crown at the All-Star Game skills competition, Michael Grabner.
Sports Club Stats lists this game as a potential 15-point swing in the Canes' playoff chances, and a loss would drop them to about a 15% chance of making the postseason - and more immediately, the Sabres will make up their two games in hand over the weekend, so two points out of tonight's game, no matter how they're obtained, are crucial. Given that the team's been working quite hard recently with nothing to show for it, a few goals tonight (especially early) could be the bounce that turns the Canes' playoff hopes around.
3:30 1st: As if on cue as one of the hottest teams in the NHL over the last couple of months, the Isles have had some great chances early, including a breakaway from the aforementioned Grabner that Cam Ward stuffed with a well-timed kick save. Ward's done his job, now it's up to the offense to get the Caneson theboard, something that simply must happen early for the Canes to have any chance of offensive success tonight.
9:35 1st:The Canes have had a couple of decent chances, but nothing like Grabner's seen in the first ten minutes. His second breakaway of the period ended in a spectacular save by Ward, who stayed with the puck despite about four dekes within ten feet of the net. Suffice it to say he's shown up for work tonight.
14:44 1st: Like we've seen countless times in the last month, the Canes have been pretty good at moving the puck but not crisp enough to get Montoya moving and open up some space. The passes simply need to be tape-to-tape, and when they aren't it gives the defense a chance to reset and break up plays.
16:33 1st: Canes lead 1-0; Skinner 25 (Jokinen, Ruutu) And one of those perfectly-placed passes does the trick to put the Canes up with the first goal of the night. Tuomo Ruutu tried to feed Skinner with a pass that was a half-inch behind him just outside the Islanders' crease, but while Skinner couldn't convert the puck bounced right to Jussi Jokinen. Jokinen fed the puck right back into the slot and made no mistake, putting a perfect pass on Skinner's tape that he redirected home to put the Canes up by one.
17:52 1st: Isles tie it; Nielsen 10 (Grabner, Martinek) Didn't take long for the game to get right back to square one. A tricky shot by Grabner (who else) was kicked out by Ward, but the puck bounced to the side of the net and Frans Nielsen knocked it behind Ward as the goaltender was a split second late getting back into position.
18:08 1st: Fifteen seconds later, P.A. Parenteau nearly made it 2-1 Isles with a shot that handcuffed Ward and trickled just behind him, but Ward spun around and gloved the puck with no time to spare before the puck went over the goal line.
End 1st: Shots in an entertaining first were 13-11 Islanders, but that first goal was huge. Can you imagine the hand-wringing if the Canes went to the locker room down 1 after that period?
3:10 2nd: Isles go up 2-1; Grabner 29 (Hamonic, Nielsen) Off a faceoff to Ward's right, the Isles won and immediately fed a shot toward the net. No one picked up Grabner streaking through the Canes' defense and he picked up the rebound, potting a backhand easily over Ward's leg to put the Isles up by one.
6:58 2nd: Should be 3-1 now if not for a ridiculous Ward save on Parenteau, in which he only did a split and made every man in the building cringe. It's no wonder the Isles have been so successful - they're fast, they know it and the Canes can't keep up.
13:58 2nd: At the other end, Erik Cole gets the puck in deep and does everything he can to beat Montoya, but Montoya stones him with a beautiful pad stop. If Cole gets that puck up high, this game is tied.
18:50 2nd: To the surprise of no one, every shot the Isles have taken has been high on Ward. Fortunately for the Canes, a bunch of those shots have gone high over the net.
End 2nd: The Isles have kept pouring the pressure on after scoring, outshooting the Canes 16-8 in the period. Given the time of year and the situation the Canes find themselves in, this is far from ideal. Effectively, the Canes have 20 minutes to resurrect their postseason chances from life support.
2:30 3rd: One of the byproducts of losing your offensive confidence is that no one wants to shoot the puck, even in an obvious shooting situation. Exhibit A: Joe Corvo brings up the puck on a shorthanded 3-on-2, and with the two defensemen covering the Canes with him perfectly, Corvo decides to pass it anyway. Predictably, the puck is turned over.
7:20 3rd: Cole nearly shoved the puck through Montoya's pads on a turnaround backhander at the near post but Montoya shut the door on the Canes' best chance of the period. Not saying much, but it is worth mentioning.
12:25 3rd: Jeff Skinner has been the only Canes skater who's consistently driven the net tonight, and it nearly resulted in another goal for the rookie as he stuffed the puck in on Montoya and it squirted out to the top of the crease. Unfortunately, the Canes didn't have a guy there to clean the rebound. Just like the other games recently, it's a day late and a dollar short.
15:23 3rd: Canes tie it up, finally; Cole 20 (Stillman) You should have seen the look on Eric Staal's face as he embraced Erik Cole after Cole tied the game with a perfect wrister from five feet out. Cole was all business, but Staal was quite literally screaming in Cole's face. So much so that Cole was actually knocked over behind the net in the celebration. Doesn't matter really, but it came at a perfect time as the Canes can't afford to get out of this game without any points.
End 3rd: The Canes were swarming all over the place in the last four minutes of the period, and if they can keep the momentum from the end of the period going into the extra period, you have to like their chances. Shots in the third were 14-6 for the Canes, who cut the deficit to 36-33 overall.
3:58 OT: Canes win! Canes win! /harry caray; Pitkanen 3 (Skinner, Staal) Ironies abound: the guy everyone always screams at to shoot, the guy everyone wanted run out of town on a rail a month and a half ago, wins the game for the Canes and gets a critical second point to tie the Canes up with the Sabres at 76 points and, more importantly, give a jolt of confidence to the locker room. It was a perfectly placed shot too, right over Montoya's glove into the top corner of the net. An inch higher and it clangs off the crossbar and the frustration continues.
Jeff Skinner said in the locker room that the message at the second intermission was to play desperate. Message received, as the 3rd was a consistently strong a period as we've seen in a while. Now, the question becomes can the Canes bottle up that desperation and use it going forward in a huge week of games, including a home-and-home next weekend with the Lightning that the Canes will need to keep pace throughout.
The Canes are off until Tuesday, and when asked if he planned to do any scoreboard watching Paul Maurice said "you kidding?!" Clearly, they know what's at stake, and it isn't just "take care of business and the rest will come". They know that they need help, and with the Sabres playing back-to-back tomorrow and Sunday, they'll know how much help they need well before Tuesday's game against Ottawa.