For the Carolina Hurricanes, the home stretch of this season is largely devoid of meaning, playing out the string and having no plans past this Saturday. But even with that backdrop, the Canes found a way to grind out a win Tuesday night at PNC Arena, defeating the playoff-bound New York Islanders 4-3 in a shootout, their first win in the skills competition in over a year.
"It was a real solid game for a lot of guys and for the team," said coach Kirk Muller. "In a game that meant a lot for the Islanders, it was good to have a good game in front of our fans."
Despite being outshot 5-1 to start the game, the Canes only took four minutes to dent the scoreboard. Off a neutral-zone turnover, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin played catch along the far wall, and Semin snapped a shot through Evgeni Nabokov's five-hole to put the Canes up 1-0.
The Isles, though, didn't wither despite being down. Former Hurricane Keith Aucoin dinged the crossbar a minute after Semin's goal, and not long after Brad Boyes' 10th tied the game at one, a redirect off his skate that was reviewed but upheld.
Dan Ellis, who made 36 saves in a winning effort, kept the Islanders at bay, and Jordan Staal put the home side back up by one at 16:20 with his own 10th goal, an excuse-me redirection of a Jay Harrison point shot that Staal intentionally, but sort of humorously nonchalantly, tipped home upstairs over Nabokov's glove.
A rather mundane start to the second period turned troublesome for the Canes at 7:34. Bobby Sanguinetti lost track of Josh Bailey as Kyle Okposo wound up a shot, and when Ellis couldn't handle the rebound Bailey stuffed it home to tie the game at 2.
From there, Nabokov took over as the Canes had a couple of great chances, including a point-blank stop on Eric Staal at the far post off a Semin one-time pass, but at 17:45 the Canes took their third lead of the night.
Tuomo Ruutu carried the puck into the zone, maintained possession while shouldering Andrew MacDonald to the ice, then finished what he started by feeding Jordan Staal. From behind the net, Staal found Patrick Dwyer unchecked in the far circle, who netted his eighth to put the Canes back up 3-2 as the second period ended.
The Islanders came out firing in the third period, outshooting the Canes 7-2 in the first eight minutes. Ellis stood tall, though, denying Matt Martin on a desperation skate save 6:30 into the period and then turning aside an Okposo deflection a couple of minutes later.
Then, the Canes' season was summed up in a nutshell at 8:30 when Nabokov misplayed the puck behind the net, giving Ruutu the puck in the low slot with a gaping net staring him in the face...and he hit the far post.
Nicolas Blanchard, playing his seventh game, had two great chances for his first career NHL goal, both on 2-on-1s with Patrick Dwyer, but both times Dwyer's pass was off target and Blanchard lost the puck in his skates.
The multitude of missed chances proved costly when, with 1:01 left, the Islanders tied the game courtesy of John Tavares' team-high 27th of the season, a redirection off Justin Faulk's skate on a pass intended for Okposo. The Isles had been carrying play and rightly deserved the goal, and it meant bonus hockey at PNC for the first time all season.
Each team had good chances in the extra session, none better than Michael Grabner hitting the post at 2:05 unchecked in the near circle, but neither team could cash in. The Canes headed to their second shootout of the season, and it resulted in their first shootout win since April 5, 2012 against Montreal on the strength of goals from Riley Nash and Jeff Skinner.
When asked about why Nash, who had never before had a shootout attempt in his career, was his first shooter, Muller said it came about this morning. "We just wing it. He had a couple of good moves [at the morning skate] and we wanted to see if he could do it in the game."
Despite the loss, the point the Islanders earned coupled with the Capitals' win over the Jets secured a playoff spot for the Islanders, their first berth in the postseason since 2007. Isles coach Jack Capuano said it's a deserving reward. "They showed a lot of will and sacrifice and determination and they deserve it. Most importantly, our fans back home stuck with us. They haven't seen playoff hockey in awhile."
For the Canes, though, it may have been a meaningless game in the standings, but it was anything but to the players in the home locker room.
"We're playing for pride," said Ellis. "Hats off to us for matching their effort and exceeding it."
- The Canes' top line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Semin factored in two of the Canes' three goals, and combined the trio posted 17 points in just three games against the Islanders this season.
- Not to be outdone, the Isles' top line of Boyes, Tavares and Moulson scored 16 points against the Canes this season, including two goals and five points tonight.
- The game was the first for the Canes this season in which they didn't have a power play. The last time that happened was against Boston on January 14, 2012, and the last time a Canes opponent did not take a penalty was January 8, 2009 against Florida. Incidentally, this was the Isles' second game this season in which they didn't take a penalty; the first, against Toronto on February 28, was notable for the fact that no penalty was whistled on either side in a game that went into overtime.
- This is the third time in the past five seasons that the Canes have swept the Islanders, and the first since 2010-11.
- Jiri Tlusty played his 200th Hurricanes game tonight. Since being acquired for Philippe Paradis in December 2009, Tlusty has 89 points, and his 35 points this season are one off his career high set last year despite the shortened season.
- The Canes will practice on Wednesday at noon at PNC Arena, then take the ice for their home finale Thursday night against the New York Rangers.