By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – Sebastian Aho and captain Jordan Staal bro-hugged in the dressing room as the sophomore acknowledged the veteran following the Carolina Hurricanes’ 5-4 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild at PNC Arena on Saturday.
“First one as captain,” Aho said in his Finnish tone to which Staal replied smiling, “thanks to you buddy.”
It was a relaxed, yet animated celebration of a win that came in front of an energized sellout crowd of 18,680.
Carolina got point production from nine different players with Aho and Elias Lindholm helping to set up goals with two assists each, and Victor Rask tallying a goal and an assist.
While defenseman Jaccob Slavin provided the winning shootout goal, it was markers from Joakim Nordstrom, Derek Ryan, Noah Hanifin, and Rask that carried Carolina through a contest in which they outshot Minnesota 42-27.
Starting goaltender Scott Darling made his debut in Carolina with a 23-save finish, an effort and performance that apparently wore him down to apparently need an IV afterwards according to head coach Bill Peters.
“I hope that’s all it is,” the coach said.
“I had a couple of guys cramping up. I don’t know what was goin’ on if it was hot or humid out, or what’s goin’ on, but I had a couple of guys who were strugglin’. I think that’s what it is.”
Playing 65 minutes as well as a shootout in the first game of the season was a credit to the Wild who forced Carolina to empty the tank the way it did.
Minnesota got its offensive push from Jason Zucker, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, and Mikko Koivu who paced the Wild and kept the Hurricanes chasing the lead through the first two periods of play.
“I thought we had our four lines going,” Peters said.
“I thought everyone got better as the game went along. You could tell early we didn’t have a lot of timing and it didn’t look like we were quite in-sync. But, it got better as we went along.”
Wild goalkeeper Alex Stalock literally stood in the way of Carolina blowing the game open at times, making 40 saves by utilizing effective positioning and reactive timing.
As expected, it was an energetic and frenzied start as the brothers Staal faced off against each other at center ice.
The younger Staal relished the opportunity to face big brother under such circumstances.
“It just felt like a big game – it was really cool I thought; I’m sure he did too,” Staal said.
“That first faceoff, just the electricity of the barn full, it was a fun feeling, a lot of stuff running through my mind and trying to keep as calm as I could. It was a really cool moment.”
Early on, Darling and Stalock showed what they were made of.
A big pad save by Darling on Joel Erisksson Ek late in the first kept the score even, while at the other end, Stalock got his blocker on a Faulk point shot which he followed up with a pad save on a Slavin snipe from the blue line.
Minnesota got on the board first, the result of a slashing call on Hanifin.
Zucker redirected a Matt Dumba feed into the low slot and put the Wild ahead 1-0 with the power play goal at the 6:30 mark of the first period.
Five minutes later Nordstrom evened the score when linemates Marcus Kruger and Brock McGinn created a scrum for the puck that the Swede tucked through Stalock’s legs.
Stewart extended the Wild lead to 2-1 late in the period when he picked up a head-man pass from Jared Spurgeon and went in unopposed on Darling.
As the keeper tried to catch him off-pace, Stewart took advantage of the blocker-side space provided and tucked a well-place backhand into the net.
Still trailing by one in the second, Carolina had a prime opportunity to tie it up when the Wild had two men in the box at the midpoint.
However, indecision and poor shot selection, along with stops from Stalock and his defenders denied the Hurricanes that chance.
Instead, it was the former captain Staal who helped cause a turnover in the neutral zone that allowed him to end up with the puck on his stick and one-on-one with Darling.
Staal snapped a shot into the goal, tallying his first marker of the season, and extended the Wild lead to 3-1 with 6:17 remaining in the period.
Ryan’s tip-in on a Justin Williams’ shot on the power play pulled Carolina to within one three minutes later.
Another man-advantage, the result of a Ryan Suter slashing penalty on a follow-through attempt on Darling’s pads provided the chance for Carolina to tie the score, but the Wild carried its 3-2 lead into the second intermission.
“I think going into the third, I don’t think we were upset with our game, I thought we had a lot of chances,” Staal said.
“We were giving up a few too many (chances), but creating a lot. Knowing it wasn’t going to be one guy doing it on his own, it was gonna be a team effort. It was getting out there and keep creating and finding ways. We did a great job of getting ahead.”
With 56 seconds remaining in Suter’s penalty, the Hurricanes worked to even the score to start the third.
Though not taking advantage of that opportunity, the Hurricanes remained diligent and found their pace in skating and passing that eventually paid off.
With Lindholm doing the heavy lifting, a feed to a streaking Aho set up a drop pass across the low slot to Hanifin who beat Stalock at the 5:15 mark.
With the score tied at three and time winding down in regulation, the Hurricanes finally showed what they were made of.
On a play initiated by Slavin in the defensive zone, the puck eventually worked its way up to Lindholm who gained the zone.
A pass back to Aho and a spin in the high slot allowed Rask to set himself up for a feed from the Finn that sailed over Stalock’s glove-side shoulder and gave Carolina its first lead of the game with 1:34 remaining.
With the Minnesota goal empty for the extra attacker, the Hurricanes worked to hold on to the lead and what seemed like the win.
Then the impossible happened.
With 7.3 seconds remaining, Peters tried to call a timeout, but couldn’t, and the Wild managed to get the puck into Darling’s crease.
With bodies flailing around it, it was Koivu who managed to jam it across the line with 0.3 seconds remaining – a play that was upheld following video review.
Both teams played a well-executed overtime period, but with much of it a puck-possession game played through the neutral zone and tops of the two teams’ zones, the shootout became the deciding factor.
Darling denied all three attempts against him that came in succession from Tyler Ennis, Mikko Koivu, and Staal while Stalock denied Sebastian Aho and Justin Williams before Slavin undressed him with the game-winner.
“Forehand, backhand,” Slavin said with a smile.
When asked if his D-man’s move, that he uses often and has found success with, will be figured out by other teams, Peters made a simple final statement.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport