A pair of back-to-back power-play goals by the visiting Montreal Canadiens proved too much to overcome as the Canes dropped a 3-2 decision in their final pre-Christmas game at the RBC Center. Chad LaRose and Erik Cole scored for the home team, which loss its second straight game following a run of four consecutive wins.
Montreal took its first lead of the game, which was all it would need, late in the second period during a five-minute boarding major by Cole on Jaroslav Spacek that came just nine seconds after his seventh goal of the season. With Cole stuck in the box for the entire five minutes regardless of how many goals his team allowed, the Canadiens were able to tack on two through Andrei Kostitsyn and former Hurricane Alexandre Picard.
“A terrible play on my part,” said Cole of his penalty, which occurred right in front of the Montreal bench as the two raced down the ice. “We’re not even supposed to be finishing our hits. I’m thankful at least that I was able to stay in the game and try and make up for it, but no excuse. It cost us the game tonight.”
Cole’s teammates and coach didn’t place the blame on him but rather on the team’s penalty killing, which went six games without allowing a goal between Nov. 26 and Dec. 10 but has allowed at least one goal in each of its six games since, including four in the last two.
”We’ve got to do a good job of killing it and we didn’t,” said Eric Staal, who recorded an assist on Cole’s goal by winning a faceoff, which Cole than took to the net before whacking his own rebound out of midair. “We’ve got to do a better job of being more aggressive, getting in shot lanes and paying the price.”
As for the play itself, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice didn’t argue that Cole should have been penalized for a hit from behind but felt that the five-minute major was excessive.
“It’s like arresting a telephone pole after a drunk driver hits it,” said Maurice. “I understand why there’s an issue here, but there’s no way Spacek doesn’t know that hit is coming. Cole is chasing him up the ice, they aren’t going in opposite directions, they’re going in the same direction.
“He’s finishing his hit and there’s no way Erik Cole knows that he’s going to turn his face to the glass at the very last second,” Maurice continued. “There’s no invitation, ‘Dear sir, I’m going to hit you, would you please mind keeping your shoulders square to me so that I don’t get a five-minute penalty.’”
Maurice also took note of the fact that Spacek, who stayed down on the ice for a moment after the hit, was able to return to the game and even record the secondary assist on Picard’s goal with one minute remaining in the second period.
Despite the setback, Carolina had several good chances to tie the game in the third period, which was easily the best of the night. Staal looked particularly dangerous, but was thwarted on a two-on-one with Cole early in the period and didn’t react quite quickly enough to deposit a sharp-angle rebound into an open net with under three minutes remaining.
“In the third when we needed it we were there and (Montreal goaltender Carey) Price made some good saves, especially in the second half of the third,” said Staal. “There were a couple on me that I wish I could have back, but sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
The Canes looked as though they still might tie it, but a LaRose tripping penalty with 2:13 left on the clock killed some of that momentum and prevented the Hurricanes from pulling Cam Ward for the extra attacker as early as they would have liked. Price would finish with 27 saves, including 10 in the third period as the visitors shook off a two-game losing streak.
After a scoreless first period, LaRose opened the scoring with his first point in 15 games. While the Canes were shorthanded, Ryan Carter took the puck up ice before spinning around and finding a trailing LaRose, who beat Price low to the glove side. It was the Canes’ fourth shorthanded goal of the year and the seventh of LaRose’s career, which moved him into a six-way tie for sixth on the franchise’s all-time list.
That effort was part of what caused Maurice to move LaRose up to the top line with Staal and Cole as part of a larger-scale juggling that also saw Jeff Skinner, a natural center, move to that position for the first time in his NHL career.
“LaRose had gone a long time without scoring or getting a point,” said Maurice. “You know when he gets one he’s got some confidence and some jump, and I thought that Staal’s line needed some help hanging onto the puck in the offensive zone.”
A season of line changing could well continue as the Hurricanes continue to experiment with different combinations. While Staal and Sutter have played center all season, Skinner became the fourth player, joining Patricky Dwyer, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, to take a crack at centering the team’s third line.
“We certainly aren’t scoring easily, so we’ve got to keep working hard to find some things that work,” said Maurice.
Scott Gomez scored the other goal for Montreal, which knotted the score at one goal apiece early in the second period.
NOTES: Ward played his 300th NHL game, making 21 saves … Carolina has earned points in eight of its last 11 meetings with Montreal, but has lost both meetings this season … Prior to the game, the Canes were 3-0-0 when scoring a shorthanded goal … Carter won all four of his faceoffs … Cole had a game-high eight attempts on net, four of which were blocked