RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes are fast approaching the breaking point in their season - if not already at it.
Although it's still mathematically possible for the Canes to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's becoming more and more improbable with each passing game. And especially after games like the one Saturday.
The Hurricanes scored twice in the third period to tie the Atlanta Thrashers and seemed poised to score a juicy, energizing comeback victory, only to lose 5-3 at the RBC Center.
The Thrashers, who seem comfortable and confident on the Canes' home ice, got the go-ahead goal from Ilya Kovalchuk with 10:07 left in the third, then an empty-netter in the final minute of the game to close it out.
"This is the games we have to win if we are going to get back to the playoffs, so it's a tough loss for us," said Canes forward Jussi Jokinen, who had a pair of power-play goals. "I think we will battle as long as we have a chance to go. It's going to mean lots of wins, but we're going to battle as long as we can."
But the Canes (14-26-7) seem incapable of winning enough battles, or putting together enough wins. Their recent three-game winning streak was their longest of the season, but it ended Thursday in Detroit against the Red Wings, and Carolina now has back-to-back losses.
"We figured we had to win tonight to get some momentum going," Jokinen said. "That's one of the reasons this is a pretty big loss for us.
"We just didn't play good enough defense. If you score three goals, that should be enough to win games, but we didn't play good enough defense.
Not on Kovalchuk's shot. The Thrashers' sniper picked up his 28th goal of the season on a three-on-three rush, getting off a shot that Cam Ward couldn't stop.
"We can't give that guy that much room to get that shot off," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "Not a bomb, but he's got one of the best shots in the league and picks his spots perfectly."
The biggest stop of the game was made by Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec. The Canes' Eric Staal was awarded a penalty shot at 8:06 of the second period with the score tied 1-1, but Pavelec easily handled Staal's low slapper.
Goals by Jim Slater and Rich Peverley after Pavelec's stop then gave Atlanta a 3-1 lead, but the Thrashers lost their poise early in the third. Peverley was called for a slashing penalty, and defenseman Boris Valabik then roughed Staal behind the Atlanta net for another penalty a minute later.
The Canes converted the 5-on-3 as Jokinen beat Pavelec with a sharp-angle shot at 7:59. And when Ray Whitney banged in the rebound of a Joni Pitkanen shot 70 seconds later, it was 3-3.
"It was nice to get it to 3-3, but they've got a lot of skill over there, and they came back and [Kovalchuk] made a nice play and scored a goal and that took the wind out of our sails," Canes defenseman Brett Carson said.
It was Kovalchuk's 31st career goal against the Canes, but only his second game-winner of the season. He also picked up an assist on Nik Antropov's empty-netter with 24 seconds left.
Staal had a season-high 10 shots for the Canes, who finished with 32. But Pavelec held on for his second win over Carolina this season.
The Thrashers erupted for five third-period goals in beating the Canes 6-4 on Nov. 27. Their offensive skills and firepower again were the difference in the Southeast Division game as they put together a number of odd-man rushes to pressure Ward, who was making his 15th straight start.
"Way too many rushes for them," Jokinen said.
Forward Drayson Bowman, called up Friday from Albany of the AHL, made his NHL debut for the Canes. It was a memorable night for him - but not for the Hurricanes.
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