Carolina Hurricanes Win Both Games Against Minnesota Wild in 2010 NHL Premiere
And, as the back-to-back concluded Friday afternoon, they achieved exactly what they were looking for.
With a 2-1 shootout victory over the Minnesota Wild to back up their 4-3 win over the Wild the day before, Carolina returns to North America leading the league in points. While it's still a little premature to say that means much, leading the league was certainly something the 'Canes never got to experience last season.
The Hurricanes came through in Game 1 after holding on in the closing minutes. After Brandon Sutter scored the Hurricanes' first goal of the season with seconds remaining in the first period, tying the game at 1-1, Anton Babchuk gave Carolina their first lead of the season just minutes into the second. Although former Hurricane Matt Cullen again knotted the score soon after, late-period goals by Brandon Sutter, yet again, and Jussi Jokinen put the Hurricanes up 4-2 at the break.
A conservative, quiet third period kept the score like that until Brent Burns found the back of the net with less than three-and-a-half minutes remaining. The Wild continued to push as the clock wound down, but several tries with six attackers were stopped by Cam Ward in the final minutes, allowing the Hurricanes to hold on for the victory.
In Game 2, the scoreboard wasn't quite as active, but tempers were. A long, entertaining fight between Tom Kostopoulos and Eric Nystrom and several other multiple-player scuffles were the only highlights through the first 17 minutes until veteran Andrew Brunette broke the ice late in the first period with a power-play goal.
Tuomo Ruutu answered back early in the next period, though, on an assist from seventh overall draft pick Jeff Skinner, his first NHL point. The score remained tied throughout the rest of regulation only because of several crucial penalty kills for the Wild.
Once in overtime, the two teams continued their conservative ways. In the closing seconds, however, a breakaway for Mikku Koivu led to a scramble that could've ended the game in Minnesota's favor. Nonetheless, it was inevitable for such a tight game to be settled in the ever-controversial shootout.
Much to the surprise of fans and experts alike, young 18-year-old Jeff Skinner was up first in the shootout. However, the move payed off perfectly, as Skinner pulled a beautiful move on Niklas Backstrom and easily scored. Five saved attempts later, and the Carolina Hurricanes were 2-0.
In addition to the results, the 'Canes showed plenty of good signs in almost all parts of their game.
Both Jeff Skinner and Brandon Sutter, two of the 'Canes most potential-filled young stars, played excellently. Jussi Jokinen, the the team leader in goals from last year, also started strong, recording a goal and two assists in the two games.
Also, for now, not one player has a negative +/- rating. While Tim Gleason leads the team at just plus-two, the fact that every other player is either even or at plus-one is a very good sign, considering that 16 of the 27 players who played at least one NHL game last season for Carolina finished the year with a negative rating.
Cam Ward's solid play was also a good omen. After allowing six goals in less than two games to begin the 2009-2010 campaign, a season where he also played only 47 games (and had only 18 wins) due to two separate long-term injuries, Ward looked like his Conn Smythe self this week.
He let in only four goals on 71 shots (and just one goal on 54 shots at even strength) during the back-to-back (a .944 save percentage), and stopped 41 of 42 in Friday's match. That kind of play should not only keep the goals allowed total down, but keep pressure off the defensive (to do his job for him) and offensive (not as many goals needed to win) units.
However, the unusual environment also exposed some issues the Hurricanes need to work on in the upcoming week until their next game.
The clear first issue is faceoffs. With the retiring of faceoff king Rod Brind'Amour, the 'Canes suffered mightily, winning just 55 of 152 (36.2) against Koivu and Co. from Minnesota. Captain Eric Staal was especially miserable in the faceoff circle, losing nearly every single attempt.
Another problem was their play without possession. The 'Canes were out-hit in the two games by a combined 46-38 margin, with 16 of the Wild's 46 hits coming from either Cal Clutterbuck or Eric Nystrom, and recorded just seven takeaways to Minnesota's 16. The Hurricanes' bad play there was evened out by the fact that the Wild made 16 unforced turnovers compared the 'Canes measly four, but teams like Pittsburgh or Washington might not make that make that many mistakes with the puck.
The 'Canes can now return to their home continent feeling good about their victories, but still knowing where improvements can be made. As they will have six days off until their next game, on Thursday, October 14th in Ottawa, it's not a bad guess to expect that these issues will most certainly be addressed thoroughly in practice.
In the meantime, though, it must feel good for the Hurricanes to be in first place, for once.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 225 articles and received over 205,000 total reads.
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