On Sunday for Military Appreciation Night, the Hurricanes aimed to end a two-game winning streak and finish with a positive before an odd four-day February layoff.
The Hurricanes netted a point with a clutch goal by Jeff Skinner inside of two minutes to play and with the goalie pulled, but the New Jersey Devils ultimately prevailed in overtime.
The game has an eerily reminiscent ring to it with the Hurricanes significantly outshooting the opponent and arguably deserving better but struggling to put pucks in the net and somehow finding themselves on the losing end of the result.
Important to note is that even with the Hurricanes recent struggles, the team sits tied with the New York Islanders (and up one point on the Columbus Blue Jackets who have a game in hand) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Though the current trajectory is not great. The team’s inability to capitalize on a heavy home stretch going only 5-4-2 in a stretch of 11 games with 10 at home is ominous. But if one simply looks at the standings and does not get bogged down in how the team got here or where it might be headed, nearing the final quarter of the season tied for the final playoff spot is something I and most Canes fans would have accepted in early October.
As for the game itself, the start was decent not great. The Hurricanes had the upper hand for shots on goal, but at this point Canes fans know how little that can mean. As in many recent games, the Hurricanes shot advantage in the first period did not come with a ton of grade A scoring chances. One really good shift by the newly-minted fourth line of Nordstrom/Wallmark/Di Giuseppe saw Wallmark step into a Di Giuseppe pass for a good chance on net and then Di Giuseppe get a second good look off of a Nordstrom pass. But the flurry that represented the best chances in the period did not result in a goal, and New Jersey struck first. Slavin/Pesce who have been at the top of their game both offensively and defensively of late, actually had a tough first period trying to shut down New Jersey’s top scoring line of Hall/Hischier/Palmieri. Pesce took a penalty, and with him in the box van Riemsdyk and Slavin lost track of Hischier who received a stretch pass between them at the offensive blue and went on to finish. Slavin later took an offensive zone tripping penalty, but the Hurricanes killed it off to exit the first period with a 1-0 deficit following an all-too-familiar theme with a 13 to 9 shots on goal advantage.
But early in the second period, the Hurricanes were finally rewarded for volume when Victor Rask made the kind of determined play around the net that the Hurricanes desperately need to sprinkle in more often with sheer shot volume. First, Rask won a puck on the forecheck. He quickly fed Teuvo Teravainen for a good chance that was saved. Unwilling to take no for an answer Rask retrieved the rebound and shot again without luck. But finally after another shot by Trevor van Riemsdyk was also save, Rask won the puck for the third time, setting up the fourth shot by Teravainen that went off a defenseman’s skate and into the net. The tally was not a pretty one in terms of the goal that was scored, but it was an absolute thing of beauty in terms of Rask’s set of work making things happen in front of the net. But the Devils climbed ahead again when the Hurricanes were sloppy in the neutral zone. Derek Ryan made a risky backhand pass in the neutral zone that missed Justin Williams right as Noah Hanifin was pushing ahead of the play and John Moore was exiting the penalty box. The result was a jail break the other way with no defenseman behind the play, only Ryan able to partially recover and a 3-on-1 rush quickly finding its way behind Ward to put the Devils back on top by a 2 to 1 score. And despite stretching the shots on goal margin to 28 to 15, the Hurricanes exited the second period down a goal just like the first period.
The third period featured more of the same. Playing a Devils team that had played and traveled the night before, the Hurricanes poured it on in the third period but still seemed destined to finish with another disappointing home loss. But with the goalie pulled and the full desperation switch flipped another sheer effort play garnered results. At the offensive blue line Brett Pesce managed to keep a puck in, then maintain it under pressure and finally get it across to partner Jaccob Slavin. Slavin then found Jeff Skinner at the side of the net who squeaked it home causing the crowd to erupt and giving the Hurricanes new life. That goal netted the Hurricanes a much-needed point in the standings and a chance for another in overtime.
But just like the last overtime game, the game ended with a loss just before the shootout when a rebound chance by Taylor Hall found a hole through Cam Ward. Ward failed to control a reasonably harmless wrist shot. Hanifin opted to watch and hope instead of box out, and when the puck spit out, Hall pounced and slid it through Ward’s five Hall before he or Hanifin could react.
The point loss really hurts, as the Hurricanes have now worked through a favorable stretch of home schedule with very little gain at 5-4-2. The silver lining, as noted above, is that with a point the Hurricanes pulled even with the Islanders (no games in hand for either team) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils
1) Fear of regression
Of all of the things going on right now, one of the most disturbing is what could be a regression to Canes issues of years past. The story of ‘we deserved better/hot goalie stole it from of us’ that incorrectly considers shot totals as a correct measure of whether a team deserved to win is inaccurate, and the Hurricanes should know it by now. Quality of shots matters at least as much as quantity, and finishing an actual skill not just a completely random dice roll. While there is an element of bad luck or whatever you want to call it to winning the puck possession/shot total game but still losing, simply saying ‘we deserved better’ and not working to make changes that net more goals is a path to multiple years back when undermanned/undertalented Hurricanes teams could often win shot battles but were very clearly not deserving of many wins by anyone who watched the team game in and game out.
2) Jeff Skinner
He had another huge goal. If you cheat by an inch and a half or whatever the offside call on Friday was, he would now have goals in five straight games with most of those goals being big ones when the game was still to be decided. I said repeatedly for a couple weeks that if Jeff Skinner had another scoring burst in him for the 2017-18, it was time to find it. To his credit, he has.
3) Cam Ward
He was not horrible allowing only two breakaway goals allowed in regulation. But with any random backup goalie who takes the net at the other end suddenly looking other-wordly against massive shot totals (see above), the opposing goalie has now been better in three consecutive games, all losses. For the second consecutive overtime, he had a goal go through him with the shootout and a different random event to award a point sitting right in front of him.
4) Cutting it short and pointing to #5
I started with doom and gloom with #1 today and laid on a pretty heavy helping after Friday’s disappointing loss the Islanders. I will refrain from mostly repeating some of the same issues and instead point to #5 below. No doubt the team spilled a more out of it this weekend, but despite the mess, the glass legitimately is half full even if in need of a towel to clean up the mess right now.
5) Time to recharge and look forward
I am on record as saying that the Hurricanes needed to go something like 9-3 in the 12-game early February stretch that included 11 home games. With a 5-4-2 mark through 11 games and the game after a layoff really starting the next stretch anyway, they missed by a minimum of two wins (and that assumes they beat Pittsburgh on Friday). I stand by my assertion that winning in this stretch was the most logical path to the playoffs, but two things on that. First is that while four teams have run away from the pack, the fifth playoff spot is still there to be won and no one else competing for it is setting the would on fire either. Second is that the Hurricanes are currently tied for that playoff spot. Let me say that again — The Hurricanes are currently tied for a playoff spot — After game #60. I know it does not feel like it right now, but that is a good thing. Timing is probably right for a last long break of four days to reset mentally and recharge physically in hopes of finding a higher gear after that.
Next up is a four-day layoff before a home game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday that starts a fast and furious run of 22 games in roughly six weeks to decide the fate of the 2017-18 season.