Stifling Defense, Superb Goaltending Lift Carolina 'Canes Past Atlanta Thrashers

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IJanuary 31, 2009

Forwards Matt Cullen and Ray Whitney scored first-period goals, and goalie Cam Ward posted his second shutout in five games (and third of the season) as the host Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Atlanta Thrashers 2-0 at the RBC Center Saturday night.

Carolina had complete control of the game right from the outset.  Their offense was fluid, and their defense kept the puck out of their own zone for virtually the entire first period. 

The Hurricanes had an obvious edge in work ethic and energy, winning every battle for the puck and working free for tons of offensive chances.  With their 21 shots in the first frame, it's a miracle that they only had a two-goal lead heading into the first intermission.

During a short-handed situation about seven minutes, 45 seconds into the first period, right winger Chad LaRose fed a beautiful saucer pass from the neutral zone to center Matt Cullen, who broke free from Atlanta's last skater back as he crossed the Thrashers' blue line and fired the puck through Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen's five-hole for the game's first goal. 

It was Carolina's first short-handed goal of the year.  The Hurricanes were the last team in the NHL to score a short-handed goal.  The fact that Carolina is now getting enough short-handed chances to score a goal when they're supposed to be killing off penalties is encouraging.  Earlier in the season they would have had trouble killing off the penalty in the first place, much less have a chance to score a goal during the PK.

After Cullen scored, the Hurricanes continued to hammer the Thrashers with scoring chances.  Carolina had multiple excellent chances that forced Lehtonen to be razor sharp.

Speaking of Lehtonen, he recovered from his last start, a dismal effort against the Islanders in which he gave up four goals on a mere 15 shots, better than anyone could have expected.  The Hurricanes got all the scoring chances they could have hoped for, outshooting the Thrashers in two periods (the shots margin was particularly lopsided in the first period, when Carolina had 21 shots to Atlanta's four)

But Carolina only scored twice on 40 shots.  Give all the credit in the world to Lehtonen for keeping Atlanta in this Carolina-dominated game.

After scanning the ice deep in his own end for a place to go with the puck late in the first period, Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo scaled the puck hard up the right-side boards.  The dump-out came down to Cullen, who wristed a nice behind-the-back pass to forward Ray Whitney, who past across the Atlanta blue line as the puck slid across.

The pass led Whitney a little too much, but he still managed to use the full length of his stick to corral the puck and get control of it long enough to set himself up for a shot and burrow the puck just under Lehtonen for a goal.

With his assist on the goal, Cullen scored his team-high second point on the night. 

The 'Canes weren't able to score after the first period because Lehtonen got red-hot and became a proverbial brick wall for the rest of the game, but their defense picked up where they had left off at the end of the first period.

The Thrashers weren't able to get anything other than a couple decent cycles that ultimately got interrupted with a subsequent flush-out of the puck into the neutral zone in either the second or third period.

Seemingly every time the Thrashers tried to get the puck into the Hurricanes' zone, the rubber would find a Carolina stick blade and get dumped out and into the neutral zone, as though it just didn't want to be in Carolina's end. 

Even when Atlanta managed to get the puck into Carolina's zone and keep it there long enough to get a half-decent scoring chance, a Hurricanes stick almost always got in the way of the pass to the Thrasher in scoring position.

The fact that Carolina had the game edge in shots 40-19 speaks for its self in terms of defensive execution and effort.  Those 19 shots that Carolina allowed tied a season-low that had only been matched twice previously.  The Hurricanes simply looked more explosive, while the Thrashers were lethargic.

If you were a Hurricanes fan, it was a blast to watch and you came away from the game feeling amazing.  I can't blame you; the Hurricanes played their best overall game as a team of the season.

If you were a Thrashers fan, it was a chore to watch past the first five minutes.  It was like your team wasn't even on the ice, it was so one-sided.  All you ever saw were those nefarious red jerseys, despite the fact that you were constantly looking for that familiar white and navy blue.  Even though your guys only lost by two, it felt more like 10. 

On the positive side, though, Lehtonen dazzled you more than a few times with his acrobatic saves.

I have just one thing to say to you, Thrashers fans: There's always the next game.

As for you, Hurricanes fans, savor this win for as long as possible.  This win was the most complete of the season.  It was the most entertaining, thoroughly dominative game the 'Canes have played all season.