RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—Ron Francis retired with 1,249 assists, second only to Wayne Gretzky. But perhaps the Hurricanes’ associate head coach should be given credit for 1,250 for a nifty setup move Saturday night.

Eric Staals shorthanded goal in a 6-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning made him the Huricanes scoring leader since the franchise came to North Carolina in 1997.
  • File photo by Peggy Boone
  • Eric Staal’s shorthanded goal in a 6-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning made him the Huricanes’ scoring leader since the franchise came to North Carolina in 1997.

After a minute of persistent yet ineffective pressure on a two-man advantage in the second period of an eventual 6-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Canes called timeout so Francis—who runs the power play for Carolina—could tweak their approach. Moments later, Jussi Jokinen gave the Canes the lead for good in this up-and-down game.

The Canes top line of Jokinen, Eric Staal, and Erik Cole combined for nine points as Staal passed Rod Brind’Amour as the franchise points leader since the Canes relocated to North Carolina from Hartford.

What are we to make of this Canes team right now? They continue to give up goals in the opening moments of periods—Tampa did it twice on Saturday—but they hung six goals on the board for their second straight home game. They continue to take too many penalties—five minors for the second straight home game—but their special teams is peaking, netting four power play goals and a shorthanded tally on Saturday night, while shutting out Tampa’s five-forward attack.

Maybe we should just be happy with a regulation win before a capacity home crowd over a division leader that plays a firewagon brand of hockey. With Atlanta’s loss in Dallas, the Canes are now just a point below the playoff line.

It didn’t look pretty early as the league’s goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos popped in a Steve Downie feed off a turnover not two minutes in. When Chad LaRose high-sticked Victor Hedman seconds later, there was the feeling that the game might quickly get out of hand.

But Joe Corvo, instead of simply icing the puck at the end of a penalty kill, found LaRose as he stepped out of the box for a breakaway. LaRose’s deke opened Dwayne Roloson’s crouch and the game was tied.

After killing two more Tampa power plays, Jeff Skinner got the only even-strength goal of the night for Carolina with under three minutes left in the period, banging in the rebound of a sharp Ian White shot after his only faceoff win of the evening.

But with 22 ticks left, Martin St. Louis turned Tim Gleason around with a smooth delay move and found Vincent Lecavalier in the slot to knot that game again.

Notice how many time the word “but” has been used? That’s how it is with the Lightning. Tampa forces opponents to skate the puck up the middle of the ice where anything can happen—good or bad. They depend upon the improvisational skills of a group of forwards that stacks up against any team in the Eastern Conference, but they hang their goalie out to dry a lot as well. Consequently, the Lightning has won eleven more games than they’ve lost, but they’ve also scored eleven fewer goals than their opponents this season. They’re the best terrible team in the league.

The second period was even more of a case study than the first. Sixty-two seconds in, St. Louis carried a nice outlet pass from Hedman into the Carolina zone, and Joni Pitkanen abandoned Simon Gagne in the crease to front the diminutive forward. Gagne could have had a brief conversation with Cam Ward before restoring the Tampa lead. And when Brandon Sutter couldn’t corral a Patrick Dwyer centering pass into an empty net after Roloson made a mistake behind his net, there was that bad feeling again.

But then came the power plays. Hedman hooked Skinner after the rookie battled relentlessly for the puck in a corner, and Jamie McBain dashed down low to pot a rebound of an Eric Staal point shot that Roloson drastically overplayed.

Within a minute, Stamkos hooked Zach Boychuk down to thwart a 2-on-1 rush and, eleven seconds into that power play, Mattias Ohlund held Jokinen’s stick. The Canes iced five forwards to cash in on the extended 5-on-3 advantage, which set up Francis’ timeout and Jokinen’s go-ahead goal.

“It was a big goal. I thought we had some pretty good movement initially and I was bombing away with a few,” Eric Staal said after the game, “A couple just hit [Roloson] I think. We called time out—we still had another 50 seconds there—and kind of designed a nice little play. They were kind of cheating up on my one-timer, and then Juice was left alone in the slot.”

The physicality of the game ramped up and Ryan Carter, after obliterating St. Louis on a clean check, slashed Ryan Malone after Malone objected to the unkind treatment of his teammate. But this merely set up the opportunity to put the knife into the Lightning’s back.

Tampa is the only team that regularly uses five forwards on its power play. Although they’re the seventh best man-advantage team, they also give up a lot of shorthanded goals. Cole must have been thinking about that as he lined up on the penalty kill. Tampa simply has no counter to his special brand of skillful aggression.

After Cole barged up the boards literally through a forward, running the puck out of the Carolina zone, he found Staal for a breakaway. Staal’s shot pinged off the far post and skittered to the boards, and he curled back, slightly exasperated, to rejoin the kill. But Cole kept coming, wresting the puck from St. Louis at the wall and flinging it to Staal in the slot. This time the captain did not miss.

Midway through the third, Tampa pulled to within one, in an otherwise calm period. McBain waited to long to try to get a shot to the net, and Gagne blocked it up ice with his shins. He tracked it down for a breakaway goal past Ward’s blocker to make it 5-4.
Jokinen tossed his second power-play goal of the night into an empty net after Stamkos was sent off for holding the stick. Stamkos’ vehement argument of the call prompted an early trip to the shower with a game misconduct.

This is just the first of five straight games against teams ahead of the Canes in the Eastern Conference standings. It’s a good start.