RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes had the Pittsburgh Penguins right where they wanted them, but the top team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference managed to walk away from PNC Arena with a 4-3 overtime victory on Friday.
Coming into the third meeting between both teams, each intended to focus on the positive aspects of losses they suffered on Monday, the final day before the league’s recent Christmas break took effect.
The Hurricanes were coming off a 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in which a third period collapse left everyone in PNC Arena speechless.
That same night in Ottawa, the Penguins were outshot for just the second time this season and shut out for the first time since last February, while their power play went silent (0-7) and the Senators handed them a big 5-0 loss.
The two injury-plagued teams with 374 man-lost games between them continued to deal with recent injury issues and made adjustments to their lineups leading up to the night’s opening faceoff.
Charlotte Checkers forward and leading scorer Zach Boychuk was recalled to Raleigh in order to step in for Jiri Tlusty who had an undergone an appendectomy over the break and as a result was listed on the Hurricanes injured reserve earlier in the day.
Along with Tlusty, defenseman Jay Harrison was subsequently listed on injured reserve with a concussion he suffered during the team’s 3-2 overtime loss to Tampa Bay last Saturday.
Even with their new injury concerns, the Hurricanes put together two strong periods of play and carried a 2-1 lead into the third while outshooting Pittsburgh 26-16.
They seemed to be holding onto firm control of the game while the Penguins diligently worked to find the right time to seize their opportunities.
Carolina head coach Kirk Muller matched Jordan Staal’s line against the NHL’s leading scorer, Sidney Crosby, and his line, and both went toe-to-toe from start to finish.
Staal (1a) and linemates Nathan Gerbe (1g, 1a) and Alexander Semin (1a) all tallied points and helped Carolina generate the two different leads it held at the end of the first two periods of play.
“Jordan had a real solid game,” Muller said.
“He had a big responsibility with Crosby and I think he did a great job. I thought he had a strong and powerful game tonight.”
It took the Hurricanes the entire first period, save two seconds, to take an early 1-0 lead against the Metropolitan Division’s first-place team when Staal set up defenseman Andrej Sekera in the slot who beat Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with a high backhand shot over his glove-side shoulder.
Sixteen seconds into the second period, Crosby swiped the puck with a backhand shot of his own that beat Peters low to the right side and connected inside the post to tie the game 1-1.
Gerbe scored 14 seconds later as he knocked in a rebound left in the crease from a shot on goal from Semin that put Carolina ahead again 2-1.
After scoring three goals in 32 seconds, both teams fed off the energy that the near-capacity crowd of 18,124 generated for the remaining 19-plus minutes of play in the period.
The Hurricanes’ hold on the lead ended at 1:58 in the third period when forward Chris Conner tied the game once again for the Penguins.
Conner’s one-on-one matchup with Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy showcased an impressive toe-drag-to-backhand setup that allowed him to slide the puck between goaltender Justin Peters’ pads to even the score 2-2.
“I think we’re a bit vulnerable in the third period,” Staal said.
“Even when we’re up, we’re down. We were gettin’ a little antsy in the third. (We’re) feeling confident the way we can finish games and we know it’s there. It’s a good team, they know how to score goals, and we knew that they were going to come out and try to battle back, which they did.”
Defenseman Deryk Engelland then gave Pittsburgh the lead again, 3-2, with 6:45 to play, as his point shot managed to trickle past Peters who tried to find the puck between bodies parked at the top of his crease.
With many Carolina fans having flashbacks to Monday’s loss, it was Drayson Bowman who wiped away those thoughts when he evened the score yet again by tallying his third goal of the season just over four minutes later.
Both teams continued to battle for the win until the final horn sounded, and with the game still tied 3-3, a point was secured for each of them accordingly.
It then took only 63 seconds for James Neal to claim the winning point for Pittsburgh as he beat Peters with the game-winner.
While Peters finished with 22 saves on the night, Fleury’s 33-save performance kept him atop the NHL’s win list with his 22nd of the season which he earned while playing in his 500th career NHL game.
“Marc was our best player,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
“We left him with a couple of scoring chances against and he had to make some big saves.”
For Staal and the Hurricanes, they once again would leave the arena trying to wrap their minds around how they put together another exemplary effort in regulation play against one of the league’s top teams, but couldn’t finish the job and beat the opposing goaltender in overtime.
“We stuck with it after they got that big one,” Staal said.
“We got a big goal by Bow. Overtime and shootouts haven’t been good for us this year as well. We’ve gotta’ a find a way to get those two points which would have been nice tonight.”