RALEIGH, N.C. – It wasn’t the way the Carolina Hurricanes nor their fans wanted the matchup against the Montreal Canadiens to end at PNC Arena on Monday.
Carolina lost 3-1 to Montreal in front of a crowd of 17,123 in attendance that was elated to see the return of center and assistant captain Jordan Staal.
Staal played in his first game after recovering from a broken right fibula injury suffered during the preseason.
While Jordan was making a return, brother Eric played in the 800th game of his NHL career, all with the Hurricanes.
The two didn’t disappoint as they each posted a point – Eric with the Hurricanes’ lone goal while Jordan earned an assist on the play along with Jiri Tlusty.
However, by the end of the game, both Staals looked to have taken some excess shots and swipes from the Canadiens that raised some question as to how healthy they were afterwards.
Most concerning was Jordan hobbling off the ice with 90 seconds remaining to play after Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban had fallen and looked to have clipped his lower right leg – the previously injured one – with his glove and stick.
The play appeared to have no intention of making contact with or for the puck.
“He’s fine,” Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters said.
“I spent a little time there after just to make sure. I think he’s fine. He’s gettin’ it looked at. He says he feels good. We’ll know a lot more in the morning, but I think it’s okay.”
Both teams started their most-worked and highest-profile netminders as Carolina’s Cam Ward played in his 25th game of the season making 16 saves in the losing effort, while Montreal’s Carey Price logged his 30th start and posted his 20th win with a 28-save performance.
Though sitting with 10 less wins than Price, Ward wasn’t far behind in goals-against average (2.42 versus 2.23) and save percentage (.913 versus .926) at the beginning of the night.
The subtle difference between the two was evident as each made numerous saves throughout the game that kept it close.
Jiri Sekac, Lars Eller, and Max Pacioretty scored for Montreal, giving them their third consecutive win and sixth in their last seven.
It was Montreal’s fourth straight win over Carolina since last year’s New Year’s Eve game in Raleigh when the Hurricanes topped the Habs 5-4 in overtime.
With a steady buzz coming from the crowd right from the opening puck drop, both teams worked from end to end and tested each keeper early.
Barely five minutes into it, the energy level heightened when Carolina’s Brad Malone came out of the faceoff circle following a draw ready to tangle with Montreal’s Brandon Prust.
The bout between the two went on for a few minutes as each traded blows amidst cheers and clapping from the stands before eventually heading to the penalty box to sit for five minutes apiece.
Ward and Price made many key stops during the first period, the most impressive of which was Price getting his pad across on a one-time attempt in close from Hurricanes center forward Riley Nash.
“I had a couple chances tonight I’d like to have back,” Nash said later.
“Price made some big saves. It would have been big early on to have that lead, but he’s a world-class goalie and he just got the better of me that time.”
With 2:53 left in the period, a Montreal point shot made it past Ward.
However, the goal was disallowed as Habs forward Brendan Gallagher was ruled to be in the crease as he bumped Ward while the puck sailed into the top corner of the net.
The game remained scoreless as the first period came to an end.
“I liked our start,” Peters continued.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t like our last three minutes of the first. I thought we got half-iced a little bit. We had the puck turned over a little bit. We couldn’t get beyond red line, so a tough ending to the first period.”
It seemed that Carolina’s trouble in scoring goals would continue on this night as it has for the majority of the season.
A few minutes into the second, defenseman Brett Bellemore missed an opportunity to take the lead on a feed from Jay McClement.
The Hurricanes center followed up on his shot after Price made a pad save on it and slid it to Bellemore, but he couldn’t beat the Montreal keeper.
As Sekac sat in the penalty box for tripping at 4:30, Carolina got its first power play opportunity to take the lead, but couldn’t convert on it.
Instead, after returning to the ice, Sekac eventually gathered the puck in the left corner in the Hurricanes zone, circled out of it with a step on Bellemore who was in tow, and cut across the middle slot in front of Ward.
With bodies in front of him, Ward had no time to react as the Montreal forward’s backhand shot ended up in the net and gave the Habs the 1-0 lead.
At the other end, Price thwarted successive shots from Eric Staal while Elias Lindholm’s follow-up attempt was blocked by defenseman Nathan Beaulieu as he slid in front of the goalie to make the play.
Eller scored his eighth of the season with 1:15 remaining and put Montreal ahead 2-0 after two periods of play.
Montreal defenseman Sergei Gonchar beat Jeff Skinner to the puck inside the Hurricanes blue line and dumped the it into the corner where Dale Weise corralled it.
As the young center came off the right boards towards the net, Weise fed him a backhand pass that he one-timed into the top corner past Ward.
Subban was penalized early in the third for tripping, and gave Carolina its second man-advantage opportunity of the game – one which it capitalized on and scored.
Staal collected his eighth goal of the season on a play set up by Tlusty and with brother Jordan setting it up with a cross-ice pass.
Price made a pad save on Staal’s first shot, but with Tlusty creating traffic at the top of the crease as the rebound dribbled towards his left side, Staal followed up his rebound and cut the Montreal lead to 2-1 at 2:59.
The goal provided the Hurricanes with the momentum they needed to keep the pressure on the Canadiens while trying to tie the game.
By the midpoint of the period, Carolina had outshot Montreal 9-1.
That progress was slowed as Gerbe was sent to the box for elbowing Subban at mid-ice, the result of jumping in the air and attempting to shield himself from a check coming from the Habs defenseman.
For the rest of the game, Subban was booed every time he touched the puck as many watching thought he embellished the contact made by Gerbe.
Price stayed sharp and made a critical pad save on a Jeff Skinner spin-around attempt with four minutes left to play.
Every attempt that Carolina made to tie the score was denied by the Canadiens, even with the extra skater on and Ward on the bench.
Pacioretty scored his 14th goal of the year on the Hurricane’s empty net with 23 seconds remaining and finalized the game’s scoring and the win for the Canadiens.
“I think we played a pretty solid game at the end of the game,” Tlusty said.
“We just have to be hungrier around the net and be willing to go pay the price in front of the net. We didn’t do that enough and it’s costing us games.”
Notes: Eric Staal’s career games played mark ranks him first in franchise history since relocation to go along with top rankings in points (707), goals (297), assists (411), hat tricks (13), shorthanded goals (16), and power play goals (101)….Both teams finished even on faceoffs – 32-32- as Jordan Staal and Jay McClement carried the load against Manny Malhotra and Alex Galchenyuk…Eller’s goal was Montreal’s 21,000th all-time franchise goal scored.