RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—A little more than a week ago, the Carolina Hurricanes played one of their worst games in memory, losing 4-0 in Montreal. But after playing three fairly inspired games since then, the Canes were looking forward to exorcising the Canadiens in Raleigh on Thanksgiving Eve.

Close, but no cigar.

Anthony Stewarts fourth goal of the year gave Carolina an early 2-0 lead over Montreal. They couldnt hold it though.
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Anthony Stewart’s fourth goal of the year gave Carolina an early 2-0 lead over Montreal. They couldn’t hold it though.

Actually “The Cigar” might be a great nickname for one Erik Cole, who visited Raleigh for the first time as a Montreal player, disorientatingly wearing no. 72. It was an at-times wrenching reminder of how much the Canes miss him. Opening games hasn’t been among the Canes’ problems this season—it’s the finishes that have killed them. Cole became a fan favorite here over the years by saving his best for a game’s denouement. This year, Carolina has frequently been a cigar short in the third period.

Wednesday would be no different, as Carolina opened a lead, faltered at the midpoint, struggled to get past regulation, and finally fell in a shootout, 4-3, costing them their modest but encouraging two-game win streak.

Price sparked the Canes’ start with an embarrassing gaffe just 34 seconds in.

After Brandon Sutter’s line buzzed the Montreal zone from the opening faceoff, they seemed ready to go off on a line change. Jiri Tlusty dumped the puck innocently enough—but on net instead of to the corner. And somehow it found its way over Price’s right pad, bounced off the post, and dribbled behind the netminder. Price craned his neck to look over each shoulder but was afraid to move and maybe inadvertently knock in the puck with a skate. But the puck was still moving on its own, and it fluttered over the goal line like a spun plate coming to rest on a tabletop. Tlusty hesitantly raised his arms, not completely believing the goal even while the horn sounded.

Montreal had barely recovered their equilibrium from Price’s flub when another odd play gave the Canes a 2-0 lead.

Tim Brent’s line was waging war for the puck behind the Montreal goal. He came free with possession of the puck for a moment but was hemmed in on both sides, so he tried flipping the puck over the goal and off Price’s back. But the puck fell short, landing on top of the goal.

Before the puck came to rest, which would have necessitated an official whistling it dead, Brent Sutter scraped it off the net and back behind the goal. Anticipating a whistle, the defenders stopped skating for a beat, just long enough for Brent to collect the puck and center it to Anthony Stewart in the slot. Stewart one-timed his fourth goal of the season and the Canes were suddenly up two just six minutes into the contest.

Those turned out to be two of only five Carolina shots in the period, to seven for the visitors. But the Canes had much more intelligence to their play throughout. With three minutes left, Chad LaRose pushed a light dump-in toward the corner, rather than hammering a slapper, which allowed Alexei Ponikarovsky to get to the puck. Eventually it came to the net and Price had to make a panicky save.

But Montreal plays a smart game too. The Canadiens have an exasperating, patient game, however. It holds them in games as they wait for opportunities to counterattack. One opportunity came on a Canes power play in the middle of regulation.

After P. K. Subban got the gate for tripping Tlusty, Montreal took advantage of the toothless Carolina power play to attack shorthanded. First Mike Cammalleri kept the puck on a two-on-one and tested Ward’s glove. Moments later, Ward couldn’t handle a Raphael Diaz point shot, and Lars Eller tucked home a rebound to close to 2-1.

And the game turned.

Suddenly the Canadiens carried play, and kept it up for more or less the remainder of the game. That the shorthanded setback took the wind so completely out of Carolina’s sails shows how fragile the psyche of this team is.

The line of Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec, and Cole cashed in off the third period’s opening faceoff. Catching the Canes flatfooted, Cammalleri tipped in a Josh Gorges point throw on Ward’s blocker side to tie the game just 27 seconds in.

After Jay Harrison pitchforked a puck out of a sprawled Ward’s crease to save a goal, Brandon Sutter briefly restored the home team’s lead not three minutes later.

Justin Faulk—who really should have been given a third assist on the goal—flung a terrific blueline-to-blueline feed to Tlusty up the boards in front of the benches. Tlusty moved the puck to Dwyer, who sent it the rest of the way across the Montreal zone to Brandon Sutter at the edge of the crease. The puck went in and was reviewed for a possible kick. But it counted and the Canes were back up 3-2.

The lead stood up for 79 seconds.

Yannick Weber threw the puck at the net from the right point. Somewhere in the traffic between Weber and Ward, Travis Moen deflected the puck just wide enough to sail over Ward’s stick-side shoulder to knot the contest at three.

Hectic play followed. Cole picked Harrison cleanly from behind right in front of Ward but the goalie got in front of a good backhander. The rebound sprung Jeff Skinner on a three-on-three rush. Skinner took a left turn straight across the slot and fired a shot against the grain of the play, hoping to catch Price overcompensating. But Price’s pads stayed flat to the ice, and the rebound thumped out to send Montreal the other way. Josh Gorges, straddling the Carolina blueline, unloaded a monster slapshot that caught the outside of the near post.

Much of the third period played out like that, but the goalies smelled overtime coming and persevered. Ward saved his best save of the game for the last 20 seconds of the extra period after Cole barged around Faulk and threw to Brian Gionta in the crease. Ward ended up with the puck in his glove, however.

In the shootout, Montreal shot first, and sent Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty, and Gionta at Ward. Price faced LaRose, Skinner, and Jussi Jokinen.

Cammalleri dekes in the low slot but Ward stuffed him with the blocker. Then LaRose came in with speed but couldn’t beat Price’s blocker with a quick wrist shot. Pacioretty angled in from the left but found nothing five-hole on Ward.

Skinner gave the crowd a start by dekeing Price enough to get some room to his right, but the rising shot went off the post and the crossbar. Then Gionta scored the only marker of the shootout by serpentining in and tucking the puck around Ward’s glove-side pad. Once Price gloved away Jokinen’s surprisingly tame wrist shot, the game was over.

And how did Carolina’s missing-in-action captain fare in this tilt? Eric Staal had better write “antivenin” on his Christmas list, because he’s still snake-bit. Staal’s skating well and has raised his game in the faceoff circle (although David Desharnais owned him on this night). On the scoring front, however, he’s still collecting so many goose eggs that he could start a food bank.

On Staal’s last shift of the first period, he briefly burst up center ice to receive a pass but Subban closed fast and denied him a shot with a strong stick play. A more confident Staal probably shoots that puck earlier.

Then 90 seconds into overtime, Staal took charge of a loose puck in the high zone and suddenly had the game on his stick. As the players around him parted, Staal had an open lane to the goal and time to unleash his shot. But he rang a hard wrist shot off the crossbar to Price’s stick side. The crowd audibly deflated upon the miss.

Winnipeg visits Raleigh next in a game that relegates the loser to the division cellar.