VERSUS (TV)—After a dead-on-arrival performance against Dallas at home on Sunday afternoon, one would have expected the Carolina Hurricanes to bring the pulse of a hummingbird to their road date in New Jersey on Tuesday.
It was a steady, resting lub-dub instead, as the Devils scored late to hand the Canes their third straight loss, 3-2. Rookie Adam Henrique scooped a wraparound over Cam Ward’s pad with just 3:19 left to keep the Canes on the gurney.
Although it’s too early yet to prime the defibrillator paddles on this season, Carolina players are developing a stone-faced pallor that makes one wonder. The Canes again swooned in the second period to relinquish an early lead. Carolina has been outscored 17-10 in the middle frame through 15 games thus far.
“In the second period we got away from our game and got loopy with the puck,” coach Paul Maurice noted to reporters afterwards. “We started turning pucks over again at the offensive line, like we’re not comfortable in that tight game.”
The Canes brought some jump to the opening frame. Eric Staal, on his first shift, motored up the throat of the defense, skating from his own slot to peg goaltender Martin Brodeur with a hard shot. But Brodeur flattened it enough with his body that the puck dropped harmlessly in the crease. He lost it for a moment but sticked it away before trailers on the play could close.
The teams combined for 25 shots in the first as both goalies looked sharp. Cam Ward barely flinched to glove an open slapshot from sniper Patrik Elias in the early going, after Dainus Zubrus had pried a puck from two Canes along the neutral zone boards. Then Jeff Skinner uncorked a spin-o-rama move to leave Mark Fayne behind and take the puck to the net, but Brodeur would have none of it, poking the puck calmly off the young winger’s stick before he could shoot.
Brandon Sutter put in the only goal of the period while shorthanded midway through. Just 15 seconds into an Anthony Stewart slashing minor, Elias tripped and fell all alone at the point. Sutter pounced on the puck and sprinted away, finding room low on Brodeur’s stick side to give the Canes the 1-0 lead.
Moments later Sutter nearly created a second shortie when he pushed the puck down the boards and flung a backhand pass to meet Patrick Dwyer cutting to the net, but Brodeur held his ground.
But as the game moved to the second period, Carolina’s early jump vanished. Zubrus deflected an Anton Volchenkov point shot over Ward’s shoulder midway through the frame that survived a long review by the officials to tie the contest. And a familiar shortcoming further undermined Carolina’s effort a few minutes into the third.
Face-offs have been an Achilles’ heel all season for the Canes, and they contributed to this loss more than any other facet of the game. New Jersey won 38 of 56 puck drops, a 68-percent clip. The Devils produced open shots off draws all night against a harried Ward. Neither Sutter nor Tuomo Ruutu were remotely effective in the circle.
What this means is that every time the Canes ice the puck or Ward freezes it with a save, the other team gets a significant advantage with the ensuing face-off in Carolina’s zone. And when Jamie McBain, who replaced Derek Joslin on the blueline, flung an ill-advised breakout pass up the center of the ice that had little chance of being tipped into the New Jersey end by a forward, the icing call showed up on the scoreboard.
Elias beat Sutter cleanly back to Petr Sykora, who fired the puck past a partially prepared Ward. Some Canes hadn’t moved before the goal horn sounded, the play happened so quickly. New Jersey led 2-1.
Staal sparked a 3-on-2 rush a few shifts later, slipping a pass across the slot to a cutting Alexei Ponikarovsky, but the big Russian found the post instead of the open half of the net.
Ponikarovsky’s determination paid off on his next shift, however, as he gained position on Henrique right in Brodeur’s face. Joni Pitkanen flung a shot from the low circle that clacked off Henrique’s stick and in to knot the score at two. The rookie sulked back to the bench.
Henrique, however, would redeem himself. With overtime looming as time wound down, his line hemmed the Canes in on the forecheck. Coming out of the corner, Henrique scampered behind the goal and shoveled the puck just around the post. Ward’s skate was there, jammed against the post. But his glove wasn’t. The blade of Bryan Allen’s stick ramped Henrique’s shot over the goalie’s pad and the Devils had the fatal goal.
Although Zack Boychuk picked up his first assist of the season on the Pitkanen goal, the young Hurricanes aren’t producing like Henrique, whose fourth of the season was also his second straight game-winner. Charlotte Checker call-ups Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, and Drayson Bowman have skated in 15 games thus far for the Canes, and Boychuk’s helper is the only point among them.
Jay Harrison faced the press after the game and summed up the team’s fragility and frustration. “When it doesn’t come, you feel the pinch… you feel the squeeze, whatever adjective you want to use to describe it. It comes down to the fact that you have to go out there and prepare to win.”
In the “What’s Wrong With Eric Staal?” department, the captain had another good but pointless game. One draw shy of even in the circle, he put four shots on Brodeur and backchecked well all night. But the chemistry that Maurice was hoping to see by putting Skinner on Staal’s wing just hasn’t happened. And Staal hasn’t made himself available to the media after any of these losses—an odd sign of leadership.
In any case, change could well be coming in Carolina. ESPN.com columnist Pierre LeBrun reported Tuesday that general manager Jim Rutherford has been “chatting up the trade phone lines.” Although it’s hard to know if that report is anything but column filler, a shakeup could hardly hurt.
The Canes face the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Friday night before scooting home to host the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.