Carolina had to fight and claw for one standings point on Wednesday in a 5-4 overtime loss. Friday was another hard-fought game, but Carolina emerged with a 4-3 regulation win. With 46 points, they're five ahead of both Florida and Atlanta. Florida has two games in hand; Atlanta has one game in hand.
After calling goaltender Michael Leighton from Albany, they gave the 26-year old the start right away. He got off to an unfortunate start when the Thrashers scored on their first shot, just 32 seconds into the game. Tobias Enstrom fired a shot from the top of the left circle which was tipped down low by former Hurricane Mark Recchi. Leighton didn't have a chance. Nobody would have. As Luke Decock brilliantly put it:
"Michael Leighton gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, but blaming him is kind of like arresting someone run over by a taxicab for interfering with interstate commerce."Officially, Todd White had the first assist and Enstrom the secondary. I didn't see it ping-pong that much, but the only thing that really matters is that the Thrash scored.
Mark Recchi is officially en fuego. The Penguins summarily dismissed him after he produced just eight points (2/6) in 19 games with them. Since joining the Thrashers, all he's done is score 12 (6/6) points in 12 games. Included are two consecutive two point nights against the Hurricanes.
After scoring what was perhaps the goal of the season on Wednesday, Ilya Kovalchuk was held goalless on Friday. He did, however, play a pivotal role in the Thrashers' second goal. He fired a shot from the left circle that caught Mike Commodore on the boot, bringing him to his knees. The puck went right back to Kovi, who shot again from the right circle. It filtered through heavy traffic, and Todd White was there to stuff in the rebound from close range. White from Kovalchuk and Recchi at 12:15. The Thrash were off to a 2-0 lead, and it looked like it was going to be a rout. Fortunately, Leighton and the Canes settled down.
For the second period, the Canes and Thrashers swapped color commentators. Darren Eliot, who worked with John Forslund on the Versus broadcast on Wednesday, rejoined him for what they called "Behind Enemy Lines". I kind of enjoyed it. I'd love to have heard what sort of nonsense Tripp Tracy forced Thrashers fans to hear, but Eliot was very good.
As the Thrashers had done in the first period, the Canes scored early in the second. Ray Whitney jumped on the rebound of a wrap chance by Eric Staal and fired it in from the high slot. Darren Eliot perfectly described it as a "fade-away jump shot". Officially, it was Whitney from Staal and Mike Commodore at 0:27 of the second.
The Hurricanes made a mistake on an early power play, and it gave the Thrashers a 3-1 lead. Some sloppy passing led to a two-on-one shorthanded breakaway and a goal. Jeff Hamilton was the only guy back to challenge Eric Perrin and Pascal Dupuis. Hambone did the best he could, but after he slid to take away the shot, Perrin fed it to Dupuis on the left side of the slot for an easy goal. It was the ninth shorty of the season for the Thrash, and eight of them have been assisted by Perrin. He said that his time in Tampa alongside Vinny Lecavalier helped him look for the shorthanded odd-man rush.
Later, during the same power play sequence, Carolina got the goal back, and there was something slightly poetic about how it went down. Pascal Dupuis broke his stick deep in the Thrashers zone. He couldn't go fetch another, so he was forced to play stickless, giving the Canes a 5-on-3.5 advantage. They used great puck rotation to open up a shot by Hamilton from the top of the right circle. It clanged off the right post and in the goal to bring the Canes to within a goal. Eric Staal was given credit for a re-direct down low, so it was his 22nd goal of the season. The power play goal came at 14:53, assisted by Hamilton and newcomer Casey Borer.
Borer, who impressed the coaches and fans in training camp, was playing in his second NHL game. He picked up an assist on the Staal goal, but his night wasn't about to end. While the Hurricanes were enjoying another power play, Borer fired a shot from the left point that went off a post and in. The official time of the goal was 16:35, which means that it was an even strength goal. It looked to me like 16:34. Normally, one second wouldn't mean anything unless it was the end of a period. However, this one second was the difference between an even strength marker which helps Borer's +/- rating and a power play goal which helps Carolina's PP efficiency. Either way, it was the young defenseman's first NHL goal. Keith Aucoin and Cory Stillman assisted.
The third period was filled with lots of great saves by both goaltenders, and it was starting to look like it would go to an extra frame for the second time in as many games. That was, of course, until the Thrashers committed late penalties.
Ken Klee caught Eric Staal with an inadvertent high stick at 12:45 of the third, but it ended up being a double minor because Staal was cut. I've never been a fan of that rule, but since it benefited the Canes, I'll take it. Just a couple of minutes later, at 15:12, Bobby Holik was penalized for clearing the puck over the glass from his own end. This is another penalty that I don't love, but in this case, it looked intentional, and I'm fine with penalizing intentional delay of game.
Carolina had about a minute and a half of five-on-three and a golden opportunity to take the lead. Instead of capitalizing on the huge amount of white ice they were going to have, they shrunk the ice, working from the circles in. Kari Lehtonen came way out to challenge a Ray Whitney shot from the right circle. The rebound was headed for the corner, but Cory Stillman was camped out by the left post. He pounced on the rebound and shoved it into the empty cage behind the Finnish goaltender. Officially, it was Stillman from Whitney and Staal. The game ended this way, and the Stillman goal proved to be the game winner.
As en fuego as Mark Recchi is, so is Eric Staal. The fourth year player has 13 (7/6) points in his last 10 games and is re-emerging as the Canes best player and an elite NHL player.
I would say that the River Rats call-up acquitted themselves quite well. Aucoin had an assist, Borer had a goal and an assist. Both players finished with a +1 rating. Michael Leighton got the win in his Carolina debut. Borer was given lots of ice time, and in crucial moments of the game. He played on both special teams units and looked very comfortable out there. His 19:05 of ice time was third among defensemen.
The "official" three stars went to Cory Stillman (third), Todd White (second) and Ray Whitney (first). I can't agree with that assessment at all. The RBH three stars:
THIRD STAR Casey Borer, CAR -- 1 goal, 1 assist
SECOND STAR Mark Recchi, ATL -- 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 takeaways
FIRST STAR Eric Staal, CAR -- 1 goal, 2 assists
Officially, Carolina converted two of eight power play chances, which is good. Realistically, the Borer goal should have been marked as a power play goal, which would mean Carolina's success would have been 3/8. Any team in the league will take that any night of the week. More importantly, Carolina managed to play a game without giving up a power play goal. For the first time in what seems like forever, they killed all of their penalties. Unfortunately, they let in another shorty. The one on Friday was the seventh they've surrendered this season. That's the second most in the league. The Senators have yet to surrender one.
Carolina will stay on the road tonight, with an 8:30 (eastern) game against the Blues. Cam Ward will likely get the start.