There were a lot of story lines in Monday night's Southeast matchup between first place Carolina and last place Washington. Probably the biggest among them was that Josef Vasicek, playing for the first time in five months, had a very big night en route to a Hurricanes 6-5 overtime victory.
In early November, Vasicek went down with a torn ACL in his left knee. He was operated upon in early December and shelved for an indefinite period of time. Almost five months after being injured, the Czech Condor made his return on Monday night. It was supposed to be a night for him to ease back into things. He was supposed to play around 13 minutes of five-on-five play. Instead, he had the first four point night of his career (2/2), led the team in hits, and played on both special teams units. For this, he was deservedly named the game's first star. Carolina swept the stars of the game. Second star to Viva, who had a goal and three assists. Third star to Ray Whitney, who got two goals, including the game winner. That goal came at 3:35 of the overtime period and Carolina enjoying a four-on-three power play.
There was too much scoring to go into detail on each goal, but Carolina fell behind early, then built a 4-2 lead. Then they watched that two goal lead evaporate quickly on goals by Rico Fata and Jeff Halpern. Later, Fata would tie the game at 5 late in the third. Fata, as you may recall, was dead last in the +/- category among all skaters in the NHL for the 2003-04 season with a -46. Tonight, he was a +2, and he is -8 on the year. I actually thought he deserved the third star, but I'm okay with the fact that he didn't get it.
Another key story line in this game was that there were four fights, 88 minutes in penalties, one ejection, and a lot of frayed nerves. Among the pugilists were some folks who are definitely not part of the "usual suspects". Jeff Halpern was involved in two (TWO!!) fights. One with Eric Staal, and one with Doug Weight. Those three are not guys you expect to fight, but for whatever reason, that's what happened.
Incidentally, with all the scoring and all the fighting, nobody was able to complete the Gordie Howe hat trick. Viva, Rico Fata, Rod Brind'Amour, Jo-Va all had the goal and the assist, but no fight. Dougie Weight had a fight and an assist, but no goal. Jeff Halpern had a goal and a fight, but no assist.
Anyway, tensions were running high. The two teams will meet again on Wednesday and again on Friday, both in the Verizon Center. I hope there isn't much carry-over of tensions. We can't afford to lose anyone to injury.
I couldn't be happier about Big Joe's triumphant return to the lineup. I'm hoping he can keep that mojo going as we head into the playoffs.
Elsewhere in the league, Ottawa maintained their cushion over Carolina by winning their game against Atlanta. The Atlanta loss would have been enough for Buffalo to clinch a playoff spot. The Sabres, however, went ahead and won their game against the Leafs, just for good measure. Also, Tampa won their game, creating some distance between themselves and ninth place Atlanta. Atlanta's playoff hopes are fading fast.
Carolina will travel up 95 North for a three-day stay in our nation's capital. Wednesday and Friday each have a 7:00 puck drop.
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