Staring a franchise-record winless streak squarely in the face Sunday afternoon, the Carolina Hurricanes squandered two three-goal leads, but found a way to win a shootout to snap the team’s 14-game losing streak in dramatic fashion.
It was like Carolina had won another Game 7 in the playoffs as players raced off the bench to mob Michael Leighton after he shut down the Minnesota Wild in the shootout and the horn was given an extra few toots at the RBC Center after the 5-4 win.
“Oh man, it has been such a long time, it’s relief more than anything,” said Ray Whitney, who had one goal and two assists in helping the Canes snap a horrible stretch of hockey. “You still scratch your head as to why we gave up a three-goal lead but in the end we’ll take what we got.”
It was just Carolina’s first win since downing Florida 7-2 on Oct. 9 as the Canes became the last NHL club to reach double-digits in points.
“We’re not throwing any back at this point,” coach Paul Maurice said. “This is a huge win. What kind of conversation would we be having now after a 4-1 lead if we had lost that game. This was enormous for our players – and staff. It’s half a night’s sleep anyway -- and then we’ll be back at it.”
The only goal scored in the shootout was by Jussi Jokinen, who beat his friend and fellow countryman Niklas Backstrom with a nifty backhander as Carolina’s second shooter. Jokinen’s 25 shootout goals are the most in NHL history.
“He’s the guy I practiced the most against in Finland because we’ve been playing on the same team for years and we practice shootouts with each other in the summer time,” Jokinen said. “I didn’t want to shoot against him because he knows me too well. It was a big mental battle.”
Meanwhile, Leighton has been used sparingly since he became a Carolina backup goalie, and was passed over this week in two games after the team signed Manny Legace when Cam Ward went down with an injury. However, he was able to stop 28 of 32 shots and came up with some big saves on occasion as the Canes were forced to use just five defensemen for most of the game when Joni Pitkanen left yet again with a lower-body injury.
“It has been tough the last couple of days because I didn’t know what their intentions were,” Leighton said. “I just told (Tom) Barrasso that I don’t know what’s going on but all I want is a chance to play,” Leighton said. “He said, 'You’ll get your chance,’ and tonight was my chance and I took advantage of it with a win. We’ve got to get back into this thing because we’re pretty far behind.”
In the shootout, Leighton was perfect, stopping Antti Miettinen, Mikko Koivu and then former Nashville teammate Marek Zidlicky.
“I watch a lot of highlights on ‘NHL on the Fly’ so I know a lot of moves from different guys and I played with him so it helped,” Leighton said of Zidlicky.
“This should be a huge boost,” Maurice said of Leighton, who won for the first time since Feb. 5, 2009 – another shootout against San Jose last season. “I thought the most patient he looked all night was in the shootout. We needed one out of him and full marks. He made some good saves. No style points for that one; he just found a way to finish it off at the end. Good for him.”
The Canes lost Pitkanen just one shift into the second period, and Scott Walker was also lost to injury after playing just 1:29. And if that wasn’t bad enough Stephane Yelle was helped off the ice late in the third after taking a puck off his leg as he dove to the ice to block a shot on a Wild power play.
For the first time in three games on this homestand the Canes got off to a fast start with six shots in the opening 5:47 – one more than the team could muster in the two previous first periods combined.
That total included a score by Jokinen off a faceoff 2:45 in as he teamed with Tuomo Ruutu to break his 10-game streak without a goal.
The Canes made it 2-0 late in the period on the power play with Ruutu parked in front of Backstrom as Joe Corvo fired one from the left point.
Carolina managed to kill off two Wild power plays before the Canes took the man advantage, allowing just two shots against Leighton.
Ruutu was screening Backstrom again just 11 seconds into a power play early in the second, allowing Whitney to fire one past the Finnish goalie for a three-goal cushion – a rarity this season for the Canes.
Carolina registered its third power-play goal in a game for the first time this season when Brandon Sutter took a pass from Whitney and was wide open in front. He deked Backstrom and easily put the puck in the back on the net for his second straight two-point game.
However, the Wild countered with three second-period goals on its own – including two within 20 seconds by players scoring their first NHL goals – to narrow the deficit to 4-3 entering the third. It was the eighth time the Canes have given up back-to-back goals within a minute span in 19 games.
Robbie Earl then got his second of the game and second of his career early in the third to tie the score at 4-4.
“It seems like every time a team scores it turns into a field goal real quick,” Whitney said. “We just can’t do that. For whatever reason, we’ve to rebound better after goals. It’s something we’ve talked about before and we’ve got to improve on it.”
NOTES: Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, the general manager of Team Finland, was in town scouting Ruutu, Jokinen and Pitkanen for the 2010 Olympics. … Aaron Ward missed his first game of the season with a lower-body injury suffered Friday night. … Ruutu’s assist on the first Carolina goal was the 100th of his NHL career and gave him five points in the last three games. … The Canes have now been outscored in the second period a combined 26-13. … Chad LaRose had a team-high seven shots but is still without a goal in 19 games. … With Pitkanen out, Corvo logged a season-high 31:52.