RALEIGH — Thursday night’s bout between the NHL’s two hottest hockey clubs lived up to the hype in every way possible, for about two trillion different reasons... at least through 40 minutes.
When the final buzzer sounded, though, it was the Carolina Hurricanes who were upset that they, in the words of captain Justin Williams, “pissed away” a third period lead against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on home ice Thursday night.
Here’s how it happened.
From the jump, the Canes were the better team, dominating the first few shifts and keeping the puck in the offensive zone.
Carolina’s great start got quickly squashed and tossed out the window when Nino Niederreiter took an interference penalty and gave Tampa’s legendarily great power play a chance to shine. And shine they did.
A scrum in the corner left Steven Stamkos open in the left circle, and the Lightning’s all-time franchise leader in goals added another one to his total when he corralled a pass and wired one over the shoulder of Curtis McElhinney just 3:20 into the game.
The Hurricanes weren’t too sharp after that first goal, but they gradually gained control again, and the end result was a cold snipe from Nino Niederreiter just before the ten-minute mark that tied the game at one.
The Canes rode the the momentum of that goal to more offensive firepower through the middle portion of the opening frame, and that was capped off by... another goal.
Andrei Svechnikov took a power move to the front of the net, and the puck deposited right into the slot, where Dougie Hamilton gripped and ripped his 14th goal of the season by Louis Domingue to give the Hurricanes their first lead of the night.
Then, all hell broke loose. With 5:51 left in the first period, Jordan Staal was hit in the head by the passing shoulder of Yanni Gourde. Staal fell to the ice, Trevor van Riemsdyk immediately went after Gourde, Justin Williams yelled many things, and Staal eventually got up and went directly to the locker room.
You don’t need me to remind you that Staal missed the better part of three months with a serious concussion... Gourde got assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
The life got instantly sucked out of PNC Arena, as the final few minutes of the period were played in pure shock. In that wake, though, Tampa tied the game. With all of 26 seconds left in the period, Tyler Johnson finished off a feed from Ryan McDonagh and the game was tied at the end of 20 minutes.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, though, all six feet, four inches, and 220 pounds of Jordan Staal hit the ice with the rest of his Hurricanes teammates at the outset of the second period, to which myself and fellow Canes Country Senior Writer Andrew Schnittker looked at each other in sheer disbelief.
But alas, he was back, and it didn’t take long for him to unleash his wrath.
In a 4-on-4 sequence, Staal broke free behind the Tampa defense, received a stretch pass from Teuvo Teravainen, and deposited a partial breakaway goal to give the Canes a 3-2 lead.
During the middle frame, disaster almost struck in a huge way, again, for the Hurricanes when Sebastian Aho and Nino Niederreiter went knee-to-knee in the offensive zone. Both players went down, but only Aho went to the locker room. Aho did return to the ice, though he was laboring at times through the remainder of the game.
The Canes kept their foot down through the remainder of the second period, but they weren’t able to dent the scoreboard again, which would prove to be big missed opportunities after what transpired in the third period.
Let’s keep this portion of the recap brief: In the third period, the Lightning scored a lot of goals and the Hurricanes didn’t score any goals.
To be specific, the Bolts scored four times: Anthony Cirelli during a 4-on-4 sequence, Ryan Callahan on a deflection in front, Brayden Point on the power play, and Ryan McDonagh from, practically, the parking lot on an ENG.
The Canes got a select few chances in the final frame, but there were missed chances and whiffs-a-plenty, which is going to get you beat against the best team in the league every single time.
Carolina showed a lot tonight in the first 40 minutes. They showed character, resilience, and the staying power needed to exchange blows with a team like Tampa. Unfortunately, they looked like the young, overmatched team that they truly are during the third period.
They were outclassed, and when the Bolts started to turn the tables, the Canes couldn’t do anything about it. The intensity they had through two periods just wasn’t there in the final 20.
The final tally was 6-3. It’s the second time this season that the Canes have had a one-goal lead in the third period against the Lightning and then lost in regulation time. This time, it hurts more, because it truly felt like they were close to really pulling it off. Again, though, it was a string of penalties and mistakes during crunch time that did them in.
On the injury front, Staal appears to be okay after his scary incident with Gourde’s shoulder and the Canes aren’t 100%, according to Rod Brind’Amour, with regards to the status of Aho’s knee, so we should know more by this weekend.
[On the loss] It was a good game for the first two (periods). I thought everyone was engaged, but we kinda fell off in the third. We let them creep back in, the PK could’ve been better... we weren’t quite engaged fully, and obviously they have the talent to burn you if you take your foot off the gas.
[On returning to the game after getting hit high by Gourde] Once we settled down there in the back, we went through a few things and nothing was lingering. We worked through it and talked it out and I was able to get back out there.
[On the difference between their good second period and poor third period] I don’t know. It wasn’t our style and it was frustrated. It’s not what you want to see. We lost our tenacity and took a few penalties, which kinda killed us a bit. I think we put up some good shifts and got some chances, but all-in-all, I think that third period isn’t what you want to see out of the group. We’ll have to learn from it, move it aside, and move forward.
[On how he felt like the third period went] I felt like we pissed it away, and we did.
[On if the penalties killed the game] No, we pissed it away. They scored one, obviously, it was a back-breaker. It was the fifth one, obviously, but no, that wasn’t the story
[On the difference between the second period and the third period] I don’t know. I don’t know what it was. We pissed it away and it’s unacceptable.
[On if the high emotions in the game influenced things] Yeah, that’s fine. I mean, listen, they had an emotional game last night. We should’ve been the one, in the third period, to have the jump and push them out, but we didn’t, and they came back and they did what they do. They win games.
[On how the special teams failed in the third period] Well, that’s the game. You knew going in, you watch every game they play. If you turn it into a special teams game, you’re probably going to win too many times against them. That’s basically what happened.
[On the difference between the second period and the third period] That’s a team, if you give them ice in a 4-on-4 situation and another power play... it’s just, to me, we have to keep that game at 5-on-5, and it got away from us, on that end of it. We weren’t good tonight, and they’re too good (for us) to not be good. We kinda got, really, what we deserved, because they were the better team.
[On the injury scares] Obviously, the hit on Jordo was really scary and then Aho running into Nino there, with his knee, we’re still not really sure how that’s going to go, but you definitely don’t want to have injuries at this time of year.
[On when he knew Jordan Staal was okay] I didn’t until he came back. It was scary. The head injuries are always scary, especially with (Staal’s) history. He seemed to bounce back, though, and had a really good game. He was probably our best player.
[On his message to the team after this game] Well, I didn’t really have to say anything, to be honest with you. Willy (Williams) said all he needed to. (Carolina’s performance) wasn’t good enough. When you play a team like that, everyone has to be dialed right in, and we took a breath on a couple of goals and that’s inexcusable - guys tapping in play on the backdoor when you’re not there, that can’t happen. We worked hard and had some opportunities, but not good enough against a team like that.