They were 16 seconds away – 16.4 to be exact – from the kind of season-opening win that would provide justification for everything Kirk Muller has tried to preach since arriving here.
All the Carolina Hurricanes had to do was hold a one-goal lead with the Detroit Red Wings net empty and a minute to go, and they would walk away with the win, the points and the kind of positive reinforcement that only winning can deliver.
And then the Red Wings did what the Red Wings do, putting six uber-talented skaters on the ice, and with Cam Ward down and without his stick, Henrik Zetterberg gathered up a loose puck in the slot and scored.
The eventual overtime game-winner seemed inevitable at that point. Stephen Weiss tapped in a loose puck at the post after Ron Hainsey was unable to clear the crease.
Instead of the optimism of a new season, there was that old sinking feeling. Unable to hold a two-goal lead going into the third, the Hurricanes lost 3-2 in overtime, getting a consolation point that provided little consolation on a night when they appeared headed for a resounding, crowd-pleasing victory.
“Those are games we need to close out and win,” said Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, who had a spectacular game despite the result. “It’s something to learn from.”
You’d think the Hurricanes, even with all the new faces, would have had enough blown leads to learn from, but this one particularly stung. They fought through a first period when the Red Wings had the edge and came away with the early lead, thanks to a strong opening performance by Ward and an opportunistic goal by newcomer Radek Dvorak. They dominated large swaths of the second, tacking on a power-play goal.
It was the style, the tenacity, that really distinguished those two periods from so many others over the past few years. Whatever message Kirk Muller wanted to get across in his first real training camp, it was coming through on the ice.
“In the second period, we came out and saw what kind of team we are,” said Nathan Gerbe, who also scored in his Hurricanes debut. “We’re quick, we get it in and we outwork opponents.”
The Red Wings scored early in the third to make a game of it, then piled on the pressure in the final three minutes, getting chance after chance, with first Faulk and then Ward disarming the best of them. It came down to the final faceoff, Jimmy Howard on the bench, Detroit’s six best skaters on the ice: Daniel Alfredsson, Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Weiss, Johan Franzen. Those trump cards did the trick.
It was reminiscent, in a way, of the game-tying goal in Game 3 of the 2002 Stanley Cup finals, when the Red Wings put six Hall of Famers on the ice for a crucial faceoff in the final minutes. Steve Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom to Brett Hull to three overtimes to posterity.
That’s ancient history now. The present offered reasons for optimism, a game that demonstrated the kind of reliable goaltending and opportunistic offense that will bring the Hurricanes whatever success they will have this season.
It also raised the same old questions about this team’s mental toughness – its ability not to get a lead, but to hold it. Muller still has so much work ahead of him there.