If all the games between the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets are going to be like the first one, everyone needs to buy a ticket and buckle up.
Some quirky NHL scheduling kept the Canes and Blue Jackets from playing until halfway through the season, and the two Metropolitan Division teams have two more games coming in the next 11 days. Given how Tuesday’s game unfolded, they should be fast-paced, intense, tough on goaltenders and fun for the fans.
The Canes won Round 1, beating the Blue Jackets 5-3. They did it with goalie Cam Ward in their net and Anton Forsberg in the Columbus net rather than Sergei Bobrovsky, but the victory was hard-earned all the same and an important two points for the Hurricanes (19-15-7).
Canes coach Bill Peters said the three games with the Eastern Conference leader, the talk of the NHL after a dream half-season, would tell the Canes “where we are and where we stand” before the NHL All-Star break at the end of the month. He liked most of what he saw Tuesday.
Jordan Staal’s goal at 3:50 of the third period gave the Canes a 4-3 lead, and a late empty-net goal by Victor Rask sealed it. Staal got a piece of the puck — his stick below the crossbar level — after an Elias Lindholm shot glanced off a Columbus defenseman.
But this was a victory built on strong penalty killing, on the return to the lineup of Lindholm after a concussion, on gritty play in the defensive zone with the Blue Jackets (28-8-4) pressing in the third period, and finally on Ward making 13 of his 24 saves in the final 20 minutes.
The victory moved Carolina three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Canes, who face the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, have two games in hand on the Flyers.
“Obviously with the start we had, it didn’t put us in a good position,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “To battle back and get in the thick of things is good, but the job’s only half-done. We’ve got to keep pressing, keep building on the good things in our game.”
Lindholm was activated off injured reserve Tuesday, allowing Peters to move Derek Ryan back on Rask’s line with Skinner. All three scored — Skinner and Ryan in the second period — as the Rask line combined for three goals and five assists.
Staal’s line also was productive as Brock McGinn scored his second of the season and Lindholm, who missed five games, earned an assist.
“You want everyone to be dangerous and pushing the pace,” Peters said. “You see with the addition of (Lindholm) in the lineup what he means to this team. I thought he was very good. I thought he didn’t miss a beat and got better every period.”
So did the Canes. They trailed 1-0 after the first, managing just four shots, and came an inch or so from a 2-0 deficit.
Cam Atkinson scored his 20th on a wraparound shot 68 seconds into the game. In the final seconds of the first, the Blue Jackets forward tried to jam the puck past Ward at the post and believed he had gotten it just past the goal line, but the ruling on the ice was no-goal and the video evidence was ruled inconclusive.
Both teams pushed in the second. Skinner scored his 15th on a shot in the slot, Ryan crashed the net for a goal and McGinn banged in a shot in front.
The Blue Jackets kept pace as Josh Anderson scored on a fluky play, the puck hitting the stick of Canes defenseman Matt Tennyson and fluttering over Ward’s left shoulder. Brandon Saad then scored late in the period off the rush after a Canes turnover, his shot from the left wing getting through Ward below the glove.
Ward, making his 17th straight start, was hit by a shot in Tuesday’s morning skate and left the ice early. That was a bit unsettling for the Canes, but he was ready at game time.
And everyone did their part, all over the ice. The Canes’ penalty killers killed off all four penalties, allowing one shot, against a team ranked No. 1 in the NHL on the power play.
With Bobrovsky out with an illness, the Blue Jackets called up Forsberg from Cleveland of the American Hockey League. Odds are that Bobrovsky, who has been selected for the 2017 NHL All-Star Game, will be in net when the Canes and Blue Jackets go at it again Jan. 17 in Columbus.
That is, in Round 2.