RBC CENTER, RALEIGH—The Carolina Hurricanes entered a home-ice weekend anxious to see how they stacked up against a pair of first-place opponents.
But after dual thumpings at the hands of the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars by the total of 10-3, the Canes find themselves staring at a familiar situation—an early-season hole that it would take months of stellar play to climb out of.
True, the team’s played only 14 games of the 82-game season. And true, they’re only two points out of the eighth spot in the conference after Sunday’s games.
But the Hurricanes’ fragility showed in a huge collapse after a referee’s early whistle disallowed a goal in the second period against Washington. And their listless follow-up against Dallas revealed the team’s rudderlessness and frustration. This is a team searching for consistency from shift to shift—and finding it decreasingly often.
Friday’s tilt with the Capitals started off well. Anthony Stewart deflected a Jay Harrison shot to score his third goal of the year just 3:26 into the game. But it would be their only goal of the night.
Before the second period was that old, Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer tallied to put Washington in front, 2-1. Carolina summoned enough of a push to draw three straight penalties over the remainder of the period, but that turned out to be a negative.
On the second man-advantage. Jeff Skinner stuffed the unsecured puck beneath goaltender Michal Neuvirth and in. But the officials had lost sight of the puck in the mass of bodies in the crease. Presuming it to be under Neuvirth, the back official blew the play dead before the puck squirted in. No goal.
A confident team would glance at the rafters, curse under the breath, and say “It’s okay, we’ll score another one.” But the Canes deflated instead. The Capitals broke them with three goals in the third period en route to an easy 5-1 win.
From one point of view, it was a convincing loss to a comprehensively more talented and determined opponent. But from a more optimistic point of view, the Canes played the Caps dead even for half of the game, and should have found themselves tied at the midpoint had it not been for the bad break with the whistle. It could be something to build on, anyway, couldn’t it?
In Sunday’s matinee versus Dallas, the Canes’ glass was shown to be not half-full but shattered on the floor.
Coach Paul Maurice juggled the lineup in hopes that some fresh pairings could spark the team. Defenseman Derek Joslin played his first game of the year, bumping Jamie McBain to the press box. Eric Staal, whose awful start shows little sign of not becoming an awful season, centered Jeff Skinner, Carolina’s most talented and consistent forward thus far.
Five minutes in, however, the Canes picked up right where they left off in the script from the Washington game.
After a promising Carolina rush failed to register a shot, the Stars went the other way as a five-man unit, connecting passes like drawing a constellation on the ice. Sheldon Souray zipped a pass across the neutral zone to Vernon Fiddler. Fiddler found Eric Nystrom skating into the high slot. And Nystrom finished the drawing with an uncontested shot over Cam Ward’s glove.
It looked easy. Whiteboard easy.
A minute later Dallas defender Mark Fistric began his campaign of checking Skinner to the ice on each shift. Only Skinner responded, with a facewash along the bench boards, and both players got the gate.
Again, easy. Skinner’s teammates watched the confrontation like it was on television.
Once the sophomore finished his penalty time, he summoned a push. Kicking a loose puck into the Dallas zone after a neutral zone face-off, Skinner fired a quick wrister into goaltender Kari Lehtonen’s glove. Later in the same shift Skinner tested the glove again after Bryan Allen picked off a pass along the red line. The screened shot tested Lehtonen, who juggled the puck like it was hot, but he snuffed it with the glove before Skinner could close for a rebound chance.
After Alexei Ponikarovsky was whistled for an iffy boarding call, the Stars extended their lead. Mike Ribeiro started a rotation play by skating from the point down to the wing, drawing the defense along with him. Ribeiro tossed the puck back to Stephane Robidas at the point, and Robidas had enough time to have rubbed his hands together in anticipation of his shot. His first goal of the year went in just under the crossbar. Again, past Ward’s glove.
Fifteen seconds later, Staal found a decisive shift and drew a trip, enabling the Canes to keep themselves in the game for a while. The captain won the face-off back to the point to open the power play and immediately skated into the slot. Tomas Kaberle scooted the puck to Skinner for a shot into the traffic that changed direction before Lehtonen got a toe on it. The puck fell in the crease and LaRose crashed the net for his fourth goal of the year.
Whatever momentum was gained by the goal was lost with a half-minute left in the frame, when Ward left the near post as Loui Eriksson began to circle the net with the puck. Eriksson threw a perfect back pass to Jamie Benn trailing the play all alone. He tossed the puck into the net for a 3-1 Stars lead.
And it looked easy.
After Michael Ryder roofed a shot over Ward’s glove—recognize a pattern?—a few minutes into the second period, Maurice changed goaltenders. Brian Boucher turned in a solid performance, allowing only a shorthanded goal on a two-on-one break with a couple minutes left in the second that made the score 5-1.
Tuomo Ruutu added another power play goal two minutes into the third to cap the scoring. Joslin made a nice decision, passing up the easy slide pass across to the other point. He pushed it to a curling Ruutu in the circle right in front of him instead, and the Finn beat Lehtonen five-hole.
Still, the Canes looked like a broken team. There’s no one thing to point to as the key to these losses. The amount of frustrated stick-smacking and bench door-slamming is telling. The Canes appear to have no one to transfer frustration into determination and action, something that Erik Cole did on a nightly basis in recent seasons. Cole’s recent surge led Montreal on a four-game win streak after a miserable Canadiens’ start.
Who will spark a comparable surge in Carolina? The leadership deficit is unnerving, with Staal in a horrendous slump. Pointless again, he managed well in the face-off circle, and registered six shots, missing the net on six more. But at even strength, Eric Staal has one point—an assist—through fourteen games of the season. He’s minus-16 thus far.
Read that again: minus-16. Next worst in the NHL are four players tied at minus-11. Staal captained an All-Star team nine months ago on this sheet of ice. What happened?
But he’s not the only underachiever, by far. Judging from his body of work thus far in Carolina red, it’s hard to believe that Tomas Kaberle was ever considered an offensive defenseman. He has not scored a goal thus far. But then he’s only taken 21 shots. He seems content to defer to the other point on the power play, as he did in the first period against Dallas, passing up a clear shooting lane to throw across to Joslin, who was covered and shot a puck off a defender’s shins and out of the zone. Then pinching midway through the third, he carried the puck behind the goal and stopped instead of shoveling a backhand shot while Lehtonen was preoccupied with traffic in the crease. Leaving the puck there, he sprinted back up to the blueline to take his defensive position. What?
Tomas Kaberle makes $4 million this season. Staal makes nearly twice that.
The Canes skate next in New Jersey in a nationally televised game on Versus Tuesday night.