RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH Cam Ward looked like he wanted his first shutout of the year. Ray Whitney looked like he wanted his first hat trick in some time. And the ‘Canes looked like they wanted to give it to both of them. But both left some unfinished business on the table as Whitney couldn’t find an open net and a garbage goal with 15.5 seconds left spoiled Ward’s shutout bid.

This game looked ugly on paper, with the already struggling Carolina adding sleep deprivation to its growing list of maladies. The ‘Canes got in early this morning from Nashville and had to face Colorado, one of the ‘feel good” stories through the first half after reinventing itself and streaking to the top of the Western Conference, some 17 hours later. But the last game between these two teams was drama-filled and close, despite Carolina being in the middle of its 15-game bender, and this game was similar. The Avalanche couldn’t get anything past an injury ravaged team for the first 59 minutes and fell, 2-1, in Carolina.

Jiri Tlusty – whose immigration issues are all worked out now – put the ‘Canes behind early with a tripping penalty. During the penalty, Darcy Tucker wasted no time in settling an old score and squaring off with Tuomo Ruutu. Ruutu sent him into the boards headfirst the last time these two teams met, on Oct. 23, and knocked him out of action for eight games with a concussion. Ruutu incurred the wrath of the league, but that wasn’t enough for Tucker.

Occasionally these situations are overhyped and, ultimately, anticlimactic (see: Cole and Orpik) but Whitney said it wasn’t surprising Darcy was out for blood.

‘It’s kind of a code of ethics. When you hit a guy the way he did and knock him out, you have to kind of answer it,” Whitney said. “He was a man about it and lined up with him. He did what was required in the game of hockey, and unfortunately, he hurt himself doing it. But as his teammates, you respect him even more for standing up and doing what was needed.”

Despite not being a frequent dropper of gloves, Ruutu held his own, landing two hard punches before tackling Tucker.

But Tucker got what he wanted. Ruutu won the fight but left the game with an upper-body injury and never returned. Coach Paul Maurice said it’s probably ‘more than day-to-day,” but he would have more information tomorrow. Is there even anyone left in Albany to call up? If all else fails, how about the stick boy?

“We’re almost at the point where when someone leaves the bench, we don’t expect them to come back,” Maurice said. “We can’t afford many more.”

Ray Whitney scored an absolute beauty on a Cody McLeod penalty. Rod Brind’Amour kept the puck in at the boards and Matt Cullen edged it to Whitney, who embarrassed Avalanche defenseman Ryan Wilson and batted it past Peter Budaj.

“Their defenseman was standing flat-footed. That’s not an enviable position to be in,” Whitney said. “I think Budaj thought I was going to shoot it right away and he slipped a little. After that, it was pretty easy.”

Things got chippy late in the first period (which, for the record, lasted over 40 minutes thanks to 15 penalties) with two scrums resulting in a party in both penalty boxes. Cam Ward was remarkably fresh in his second start in as many nights, turning away 14 shots through the first. In addition, the penalty killers played their hearts out in the absence of ringleader Eric Staal, who is on leave from the team to attend his sister-in-law’s funeral.

Kostopoulos and Wilson squared off with 1:03 left. Neither guy earned an advantage and the referees broke it up just when things started to get interesting.

“They were trying to play aggressive with us in the first period, but our guys fought back,” Ward said of a first period that saw gear littering the ice more often than not.

Before the Avs were really awake, Whitney had his second of the night 37 seconds into the second period. He skated in along the boards, thought about taking a shot, held it for a moment longer and surprised Budaj with a seemingly innocuous shot that slipped under him five-hole.

After being penalized in the first period for something he didn’t really seem to do, Tim Gleason made sure he earned it this time when he squared off with Chris Stewart. There wasn’t any question with who won this one. Stewart pulled Gleason’s jersey over his head and battered away at his head until the refs peeled the two apart.

Everyone chilled out as the second period wore on. No goals, few penalties, and surprisingly, no more fights.

During the third, Paul Stastny had one go off the post and slide all the way across the crease, where Brandon Sutter was there to sweep it out of harm’s way.

The Avs’ Brandon Yip (he he) took a penalty with under three minutes left, negating the advantage they earned with an empty net. To no one’s surprise, Whitney was out there cherry picking, trying to finish his hat trick. But Yip (he he) came out of the box and scored after crashing the net, spoiling the shutout.

Regardless, Mo called it a “good character win.”

“I was really pleased with the game,” Maurice said. “We ran out of gas toward the end, but we had some really great performances.”

Carolina gets a precious 43-hour break before facing the Ottawa Senators on Military Appreciation Night Sunday at 5 p.m.