Coming in, the Canes were 16-10 in one-goal games – eight of those victories coming since Paul Maurice took over the team in early December – while the Lightning were a woeful 6-19 in tight contests.
And there it was late Thursday night at the RBC Center -- tied 2-2 in the team’s first home game in two weeks -- when the Hurricanes were once again the most opportunistic team, getting a goal from All-Star center Eric Staal with 1:36 left to snap Tampa Bay’s three-game winning streak.
Staal’s team-leading sixth game-winning goal wasn’t necessarily a thing of beauty, coming off a long rebound from a Tim Gleason shot, a fanned attempt by Sergei Samsonov, who then was able to get a shot off, hitting each post before the puck fell to the skates of a wide open Staal to the right side of the net.
“I picked up the garbage backdoor, but I’ll take it,” said Staal, who scored his 21st of the season.
“Nope, nothing seems to come easy for us, but that’s OK, as long as we’re winning,” he added. “We talked about it before the game that this is a huge 30 games for us. We’ve got to win. We’ve battling with a few teams and we’ve got to bring our consistent work ethic and effort every night.”
It appeared Tampa Bay caught a break when no penalty was called against Matt Smaby for cross-checking Matt Cullen into the boards just 30 seconds before Gleason raced back up ice to start the winning sequence.
Cam Ward, starting his 15th straight game in net, stopped 27 of 29 shots for his 100th career win, including holding the Lightning at bay over the final 1:03 with Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith pulled for an extra attacker.
Cullen’s wraparound goal off the inside of the pads of Smith with 1:24 left in the second period gave the Canes a two-goal period and some momentum heading into the third at 2-1. Cullen’s goal was just his third in the last 21 games.
However, Tampa Bay tied the score less than six minutes into the third to set the stage for a tense final 14 minutes between the two Southeast Division rivals.
Carolina was the only team without a shorthanded goal in the NHL until Chad LaRose tipped in a pass from Cullen after a misplay by Smith early in the second, the tying goal coming just 13 seconds after a high-sticking penalty against Tuomo Ruutu.
“Any time you can score shorthanded it builds momentum and energy and I thought that goal by Chad really lifted our bench and got everybody excited,” Staal said. “Chad played great all night. He was really physical and was using his legs."
“It gave us a little jump start and it got the crowd into it,” added LaRose, who continues to put together a fine season. “We took over a little from there.”
Tampa Bay’s first shot to elude Ward was disallowed after a replay showed Martin St. Louis batted the puck out of the air with the high stick as he battled with Gleason. But Mark Recchi didn’t miss the mark with 3:05 left in the first, making his former team pay when he scooped up a failed clear in the slot and beat Ward for his 32nd career goal against the Carolina franchise.
The Canes dominated much of the first 20 minutes with 13 shots, including two in-close chances by Patrick Eaves, but Smith was sharp and kept the Canes off the scoreboard until the second period.
“That was a very physical game,” said coach Paul Maurice. “It’s a good sign for us that we’re fighting that hard and we’re not just trying to play out on the perimeter all night.”
NOTES: Carolina is now 24-8-8-1 all-time at home against Tampa Bay. … LaRose’s 11th goal matched his career-high, set last year. … The Canes have led after the first period just 16 times in 50 games. … Recent minor league call-up Bryan Rodney saw some point time on the second power-play unit. … Scott Walker, Dennis Seidenberg and Niclas Wallin all missed the game with injuries. … Wade Brookbank was scratched for the 22nd time in the last 23 games. … The Canes saluted the passing of N.C. State women’s basketball coach Kay Yow with a scoreboard tribute and drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 16,405. …Michael Ryan, who scored 23 goals in 36 games with the Albany River Rats, logged 4:52 of ice time replacing Walker in the lineup.