RALEIGH, N.C – Each team had a focus and a target.
One hit it and the other didn’t.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, it was a win and two points to continue to fight for a quickly-disappearing NHL wildcard playoff spot as well as avoiding being swept by the Buffalo Sabres for the season.
For the Buffalo, it was Carolina’s leading scorer Jeff Skinner who was never out of the reach of Rasmus Ristolainen and Johan Larsson.
In the end, the Sabres beat the Hurricanes 3-2 at PNC Arena on Tuesday and won the season series between the two teams for the second straight year.
Chris Terry and Joakim Nordstrom scored for Carolina while Cam Ward made 22 saves in the loss.
Carlo Colaiacovo, Evander Kane, and Larsson fueled the Sabres offense to post the win for goalkeeper Chad Johnson.
With the score tied after two periods, Nordstrom’s 10th goal of the season with 6:20 to play put Carolina in good shape to earn those valuable two points.
Three minutes later it all unraveled as two goals a minute apart was enough for the Sabres to earn the win.
Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters described it as, “just some mistakes, some individual mistakes, obviously; little bit of D-zone coverage.”
Not much, but enough.
During the first period, both teams paced themselves and kept both Ward and Johnson busy.
With 7:38 to go, Colaiacovo opened the game’s scoring with a point shot that got some help off Brad Malone’s stick and beat Ward high to the glove side.
It was his first goal of the season.
Carolina’s closest chance to tie was denied by a pad save from Johnson.
Malone fed Nathan Gerbe a perfect pass at the top of the crease and the redirect was on target, but the keeper was in position to make the stop.
In his end, Ward remained sharp and stopped wrap and redirect attempts from Nicolas Delauriers and Kane, respectively.
Buffalo carried its 1-0 lead into the intermission with both teams getting eight shots apiece on goal for the period.
Still trailing into the second, Carolina evened the score at 12:10 on a well-executed rush initiated through the neutral zone by Riley Nash.
With defenseman Noah Hanifin skating up the left boards, Nash moved the puck to him to carry into the Sabres zone.
Hanifin then found Terry streaking in and fed him with a pass that he one-time for his seventh goal of the season.
With 1:27 left in the period, Skinner’s emotion finally unleashed itself.
After he sidestepped a check from Risotlainen at the top of the left circle in the Carolina zone, Skinner got the attention of three different Sabres players after he slashed back at the Finnish defenseman.
He dodged a run from Marcus Foligno, then facewashed Sabres captain Brian Gionta before getting ambushed by Larsson along the middle of the blue line.
Skinner eventually ended upon the ice with Larsson landing gloved punches on his covered head.
In the end, both teams’ penalties offset each other as Foligno and Larsson got roughing minors which matched the two Skinner received for slashing and roughing along with a misconduct for colorful commentary towards the officials.
Carolina started the third with Skinner sitting in the box serving the remainder of his misconduct with both teams playing at even strength.
Carolina came out and assumed puck possession in the Buffalo end for much of the early part of the period.
Ristolainen eventually drew Malone into a cross-checking penalty in retaliation for a swipe at him behind Johnson’s net.
While skating to the penalty box, Malone was assessed an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for offering the referee his opinion of the call.
It was a not a night for extra commentary with officials Frederick L’Ecuyer and Greg Devorski.
Or at least not when Skinner nor Malone spoke.
Peters said he really didn’t get an explanation on the reasoning for Skinner’s misconduct, but “enough of an explanation to know,” as he put it.
“We’ll have a good opportunity to teach tomorrow about frustration and about controlling your emotions, and about sacrificing individual rights for team rights, especially when the game is on the line.”
After successfully killing off the entire four minutes of Malone’s penalty time, Carolina scored to take a 2-1 lead with 6:20 remaining.
Nordstrom picked the puck away from Buffalo’s Jack Eichel at the Carolina blue line and pushed the puck across the ice to Jordan Staal.
Once over the Sabres blue line, Staal passed the puck back across to Nordstrom who left Ristolainen by himself after dodging and spinning around him to continued towards Johnson.
From 20 feet out, Nordstrom snapped a high shot past the keeper.
It was an impressive finish to be sure.
As good as that all looked and felt for the Hurricanes and their fans, the revelry quickly shifted to Buffalo’s favor as Kane’s one-timer in the slot on a feed from Ryan O’Reilly tied it up with 3:49 to go.
A minute later, it was Larsson who snapped a one-timer of his own past Ward.
Skinner’s attempt to carry the puck forward out of his zone was cut short by Brian Gionta who picked it away from him.
From there, Gionta’s set-up pass was all Larsson needed to score the eventual winner for Buffalo.
Trailing 3-2, the Hurricanes pulled Ward for the extra skater with 2:13 to play, but couldn’t score the equalizer.
With the focus that the Sabres placed on him throughout, it was the most emotion Skinner had exhibited in any game this season.
He retaliated and stood up for himself to what he thought were cheap shots given to him by many Sabres players, particularly Ristolainen.
Giving up the puck on what turned out to be the Sabres’ game-winning goal didn’t help matters.
“Yeah, it was a tough game for sure,” he said.
“I think especially when you’re on there for the winner and you don’t get the puck out and kind of let the guys down – especially when the guys did a great job battling back after that kill. It’s frustrating letting guys down like that, but you gotta move on from it and learn from it and be better next game.”