RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—We expected a learning curve this season for the young Carolina Hurricanes, but what we’re getting is a learning zig-zag. For every 7-goal outburst, there has been the outing in which the Canes simply haven’t looked competitive. Tonight’s 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars was, unfortunately, the latter.

James Neal scored twice and Kari Lehtonen handled all but one of 28 mostly long-range shots as Dallas took sole possession of first place in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division. Carolina, uninspired by the fact that the game was nationally televised on Versus, seemed content to watch the Stars play, remaining a distant fourth in the Southeast.

“It’s been kind of up and down all year. We’re kind of treading water in around that red line of the playoffs,” Eric Staal noted. “We have to find ways to get above that line.”

Early on, the contest was a forecheck display as the Canes chose to dump the puck straight at Lehtonen rather than into the corners or hard around the boards. Gradually, however, the Stars’ transition game asserted itself. Their first line of Neal, Brad Richards, and Loui Eriksson dominated throughout, clamping down on the Carolina zone midway through the first period to produce the first goal. From the dot to Cam Ward’s left, Neal sniped a feed from Eriksson, who won the puck behind the net.

Eric Staal provided the lone bright spot in a 4-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.

Dallas added a goal just after a Carolina power play expired early in the second period. Steve Ott banged in a centering feed from Jamie Benn as tired Canes forwards circled above the play, hoping Ward would do the dirty work for them. Not even two minutes later the Stars struck again. Neal wired a pass from Nicklas Grossman, who carried the puck past most of Carolina’s skaters through the neutral zone.

Staal awakened the crowd and his team with a terrific individual play during a 4-on-4 sequence near the middle of the period. Blowing through a passive Grossman along the boards, Staal barged down the wing and roofed the puck over Lehtonen for the only home goal. Coach Paul Maurice juggled his top lines for much of the remainder of the period, restoring Chad LaRose and Sergei Samsonov to Staal’s wings, and moving Erik Cole down to skate with Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner in an attempt to spark a scoring flurry. But Dallas’ backcheck took their two-goal lead to the second intermission.

After a Jamie Benn goal set the final score, Tim Gleason unloaded some frustration on Adam Burish, decking him in front of the home bench. Steve Ott’s reaction set off a scrum, but the resulting Carolina power play showed none of the intensity that it did last Friday when it tallied three times against Boston’s league-leading penalty kill.