If there was any optimism left among the Hurricanes fanbase then tonight's 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs probably killed all of that. We've been treated to the same story for the last two weeks with the Hurricanes getting outplayed by their opponents, showing no desperation and getting blown out. Tonight's game was a little different. They were certainly outplayed by the Leafs, getting outshot 26-16 at even strength and outchanced 22-13 overall, but for the first time in awhile, the Canes showed some determination and were able to fight their way back into the game after trailing 2-0.
They got the help of a shorthanded breakaway goal from Eric Staal and a timely powerplay goal from Alexander Semin, but it just goes to show you how much winning the special teams battle can help a team. The Hurricanes had absolutely no business being in this game after how they played in the first period, but they were able put themselves in a position to win in the third period thanks to good special teams. They took advantage of this opportunity in the third period with Jordan Staal getting a mini-breakaway after a misplay by the Leafs defense and giving Carolina a go-ahead goal. For that moment, it looked like there was hope the Canes could break out of this slump and at least build some confidence heading down the stretch of the season.
The only problem with this theory is that they were still getting outplayed and continued to let the Leafs forecheck dominate them. Toronto would eventually get a powerplay out of this and scored on the tail end of it with a rocket from the point from Dion Phaneuf. Now Carolina was in a battle just to earn a point in the standings and that went away after Joffrey Lupul went coast-to-coast, skated around Carolina defenseman Joe Corvo and undressed Justin Peters to give the Leafs the go-ahead goal. The Canes were now deflated and began to sink to the levels that we have been accustomed to the last few weeks in their comeback efforts.
The final score might be a tad misleading because the Leafs added on two empty net goals in the final minute, but this probably could have been a blowout when you considered how much better Toronto was than Carolina. This was yet another bad performance by a team that does not look like they have playoff aspirations this season. I know their underlying numbers are promising and they are mostly just underperforming right now, but stretches like this can be a dagger in a shortened season, so anything the Hurricanes ground the Hurricanes make up after this could be too little too late.
The team's confidence is shot right now and they are playing at a level that is much lower than what should be expected of them and I'm not sure if anyone knows how to fix it. You can call for players to be benched or traded and for coaches to be fired but that isn't going to fix anything at this point. The problem with this team right now seems to be much bigger than that and the responsibility goes to everyone involved in the organization. There's not much they can do about this season other than ride things out and hope for the best.
Corey's Ten Thoughts
– There were a lot of people who did not take too kindly to head coach Kirk Muller's criticism of goaltender Justin Peters in the post-game press conference. He said that "the bottom line is we didn't get the saves." Peters is not an NHL goalie by any means and he hasn't proven he can be one that steals games, but how fair is it for the coach to put the blame on him for this? He was slow on both the Franson and Phaneuf goals and got undressed by Lupul on the game-winner, but let's remember that the team got 22-13 tonight. When Cam Ward went down, I thought this team might make it through this stretch alive because they weren't relying on goaltending to win games up until that point. Now they are getting hammered territorially by poor puck-possession teams like Toronto. Peters wasn't great by any stretch tonight, but the problem isn't so much him but more that this team is relying on him to steal games. If they continue that, then it's not a recipe for success.
– Part of the reason why the team was so poor in the territorial game tonight was the Jordan Staal line getting destroyed at even strength by the Leafs first line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James Van Riemsdyk. Jordan Staal did score a big goal in the third period, which was great to see. What isn't so great is that the goal was only one of two 5v5 shots which he was on ice-for all game during 5v5 play. Staal is normally the Canes best player at driving the play and I was thinking he could be even better with Tuomo Ruutu getting bumped up to his line, but they were one of Carolina's weak points tonight. The worst part is that this was the matchup Kirk Muller was looking for on the road and the Hurricanes still got destroyed despite that.
– Matchups were an issue for the Canes all game long. It's normally expected to be in a road game and it's magnified with their normal tough-minutes guy (Justin Faulk) out of the lineup. Jamie McBain & Joni Pitkanen, once again, spent most of their ice-time against the Leafs top-six and the Canes got heavily outshot whenever they were on the ice. Muller actually did his best to protect these two by starting them in the offensive zone seven times, but that wasn't enough to cover up their mistakes. McBain also played over 19 minutes in even strength ice-time, leading the defense corps. I know that Muller's options are limited now but it's becoming more evident that McBain is not suited for a top-four role so it might be time to try someone else. The problem isn't so much on McBain himself rather than him playing a role that he is clearly not suited for.
– Who should that someone be to fill-in for McBain, though? Well, Joe Corvo isn't going to be the most popular option among fans right now after his performance on the Lupul game-winning goal. Lupul was able to glide through the neutral zone untouched, skated around Corvo (who made no effort to break up the play) and right in on Justin Peters to put the Leafs up 4-3 late. Corvo has been good this year and has actually been respectable in a top-four role with all the injuries, but that kind of mistake is something that seems to always happen to him. He also did not have a great game overall, as the Canes were outshot 9-19 when he was on the ice. I'm sure many people want him or McBain benched but there isn't anyone to replace him with and one of them is going to have to be in a top-four role no matter what so mistakes like that are bound to happen.
– I made a frustrated comment on Twitter about Canes color guy Tripp Tracy talking about "positives" after the Canes had collapsed in the third period, but there were some good things to take away from this game. For me, one of them was the play of the first line. They had maybe their worst game of the season on Tuesday night against Winnipeg and slightly redeemed themselves tonight with a great performance. They were the only ones who were tilting the ice in Carolina's favor during even strength play and produced the majority of Carolina's scoring chances. Carolina's best players definitely showed up tonight and did their best to rally the team back in the second period.
– The other positive would be Carolina's powerplay, which produced three shots in a little over four minutes and were rewarded with Semin scoring the game-tying goal late in the second period. Many analysts have been at work to discover what the problem with the team's powerplay was and many people pointed to not having any net front presence, which could be fixed by Tuomo Ruutu's return. Net front presence has a role, but what really makes a powerplay go is puck-possession and the Canes had plenty of that on their shift that led up to Semin's goal. They kept the puck in Toronto's zone for at least a good minute, created a fully of chances, won all their battles and Semin cashed in with the finisher. This along with the short-handed goal from Staal could have been enough for the Canes to steal a win, but Toronto had two powerplay goals of their own and the upper-hand at even strength, so the better team won in the end.
– While puck-possession was great for the Canes on the powerplay, it was completely missing at even strength. The Leafs having a 54-40 advantage in shot attempts at even strengths is evidence of that and so is the Hurricanes tendency to dump the puck in over and over again. Of Carolina's 69 zone entries, only 16 of them were carry-ins, which is pretty horrible when you consider how much more offense teams produce when carrying the puck in. This was something they were good at doing earlier on in the season but have been progressively worse at as the season went on. I don't know if this is a coaching strategy placing more emphasis on establishing a forecheck and forcing turnovers, but the team's offense seems to have floundered because of it. No Carolina player had more than two carry-ins tonight. That is uh…not good.
– By comparison, the Leafs had a whopping 36 carry-ins during 5v5 play and the most surprising thing is that all of it came from only 8 players and their first line alone contributed to a 1/3 of them. That probably explains why the Leafs first line controlled the play so much territorially, though. Matt Frattin also had a team-high nine controlled zone entries.
– Going back to some of the positives, Brett Bellemore and Jay Harrison were pretty effective as a third-pairing and I'm kind of surprised that Muller kept Harrison to the third pairing with how much McBain was struggling. I mean, he was playing against Toronto's third line in a sheltered role but he has experience playing tougher minutes, so why not give him a shot there? It's also worth mentioning that Toronto's third line has Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Frattin on it, who aren't exactly your average "checking line" to say the very least. Bellemore also had his best game as an NHL-er and did a solid job defensively.
– Carolina was outshot 15-5 in the third period. Granted, the Leafs had a powerplay late in the frame but the Leafs were still the better team overall and completely deserved the two points. Carolina's territorial game has been just brutal to watch lately and this was proof of it.
Well, it wasn't a blowout, but I'm pretty sure this loss stung a lot more than any of the last six combined, if only because the Hurricanes found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Yes, the Leafs were the better team tonight but Carolina was lucky enough to get themselves in a position to win in the late stages and crumbled. It's kind of microcosm of how their season has gone thus far since both the division and the playoffs seem out of reach right now. I think more people are concerned if this team can win another game for the rest of the year, much less make the post-season, because just about everything has been going wrong for them for the last two weeks.