The Canes weren’t expecting their exhibition game in St. Petersburg to be excellent preparation for the start of the regular season. They were right.
In what turned out to be more of an event than a hockey game, the Hurricanes lost 5-3 to SKA St. Petersburg in a rough-and-tumble contest that saw several players reeled in to avoid injury.Click here for photos from the game
This came after the team was already dealing with the larger ice surface and different rules than what they’ll see in Helsinki on Thursday. Coach Paul Maurice summed it up best when asked what he’ll take away from the experience.
“Some lovely parting gifts,” he said, having just received a basket full of men’s toiletries from the home team’s ice girls.
Prior to the game, the mantra from the Hurricanes locker room was to expect the unexpected. That being said, those who had some experience playing in Russia at the youth and junior levels were less than surprised that things turned ugly.
“I’ve played here enough times to know,” said Brandon Sutter. “It’s always a competition.”
The trouble began when SKA players, performing in front of an enthusiastic capacity crowd, delivered a series of what the Hurricanes believed to be low, deliberate hits to the knee that referees did not call as penalties. Eric Staal’s last shift of the game occurred in the second period as Maurice chose not to subject his captain to potential injury.
“It seemed like they were getting awfully close to his knees and there wasn’t enough concern out there,” said Maurice. “He’s a star NHL player and should be playing in the National Hockey League.
“It was the only way to sort it out,” added Maurice. “There’s going to be a lot of fights and a lot of (BS). That’s what you saw out there.”
Leaving the game was not Staal’s idea, but he acknowledged afterwards that it was probably for the best.
“I wanted to go back on the ice badly, score a few and fist pump down the ice,” he said.
Staal, who was sporting a small cut underneath his eye, said that he did not feel like the SKA players were targeting him directly, but he had definitely received two low hits that he didn’t like.
“He kind of dove at my knees,” said Staal of his final shift. “I’m a big guy, I can take a hit, but when the guy lunges at your knee when you’re going full speed, you can blow an ACL.”
That incident prompted Jay Harrison to challenge the offending player, but they ended up sharing roughing minors when referees intervened. On the next shift, Tim Gleason got into an altercation after a battle along the boards, only he didn’t drop his gloves in the customary fashion.
“I’ve never fought with my gloves on in my life,” he said. “I kept them on because I wasn’t sure what the repercussions would be.”
As it turned out, both he and his sparring partner were ejected from the game along with the standard five penalty minutes for “fisticuffs” as called by the Ice Palace’s public address announcer.
Two more Carolina players were tossed near the end of the contest. Joni Pitkanen was found guilty of a spearing offense, while Harrison formally engaged a SKA player in a brief tussle in the closing minutes while the crowd began chanting “Russia! Russia!”
The Hurricanes ended up piling on the penalties as the flow of the game was all but destroyed by the second half. Maurice was just fine with that, as the game’s true value may have presented itself as a bonding experience.
“I’m really not that upset,” he said. “It’s team building and I’m happy with that.”
“A few things happened that would have been handled a lot differently back home, but guys were sticking up for each other and that’s good,” said Sutter.
The bad blood wasn’t enough to derail the post-game handshake, although it should be noted that the ejected players did not take part. In another traditional ceremony, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and SKA’s Alexei Yashin were named players of the game by each team.
Skinner’s honor was well earned, as he scored one goal on a nice play where he caught a pass on his skate, kicked it to his stick and then wrapped it around goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to tie the game at 3-3 in the second period. Previously, he nearly pulled off a move that would have and probably still should appear on any highlight reels that may or may not emerge from the game. Coming in one-on-one with a SKA defender, Skinner gained speed as he spun around his opponent and went in on goal, only to have his shot attempt denied.
“This guy is a great player,” said Maurice of Skinner. “I love watching this guy play. I would buy tickets to come see him play, and he’s 18. I think this guy is going to be a great player for us for a long time.”
The Hurricanes’ other goals were scored by Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Dwyer. Cam Ward played the first half of the game, allowing two goals, but gave way to Justin Peters halfway through in a planned move by the Carolina coaches.
If nothing else (which is probably the case), the game will certainly be a memorable one for everyone in the Hurricanes’ camp.
But should an NHL team go to Russia again?
“I’m going to have to think about that one for a while,” said Maurice.
One last note from the game – Joe Corvo did not come out for the second period with a mild lower-body concern, which now seems purely precautionary given the way the game played out.