RALEIGH — A team in the situation the Carolina Hurricanes were in Friday usually goes one of two ways. It rallies, and takes the first halting step toward recovery, or slips further into the abyss. There's not supposed to be any middle ground, but the Hurricanes found it Friday.
Coming off Wednesday's miserable loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the Hurricanes produced one of their best all-around performances of the season against the Buffalo Sabres, but with nothing to show for it. The 1-0 loss was a huge step in the right direction on the ice but yet another step in the wrong direction off of it - their seventh loss in the past eight games, their second straight shutout against.
The Hurricanes will win a lot of games if they play like this every night, but they desperately needed to win Friday. It's getting a little late for moral victories, and they don't count toward a playoff spot anyway.
"At this point, that's really frustrating, considering where we're at and where we've been," said Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, who led the team's fruitless charge in the third period. "To come up with an effort like this at home, you want that bounce, you want that result, and it went the other way."
The plan for Friday was simple: Start at your own net and work outward from there. The Hurricanes did a very good job of that, and dominated large stretches of the game, but to no avail.
Asked how he felt about all the rebounds that didn't turn into goals, embattled coach Paul Maurice smiled thinly.
"In my situation, I'm not sure I can fully describe the frustration of not seeing one of those second-chance goals," Maurice said.
Maurice made the unusual - and out of character - choice to start Brian Boucher over Cam Ward. Typically, once the season becomes a game-by-game referendum on the coach, as it often has during Maurice's two stints here, he'll ride his No. 1 goalie into the ground.
Yet Boucher got the call, only his fourth of the season, ostensibly to save Ward for the crowded schedule ahead but presumably to deprive the team of its ultimate safety net and induce a better defensive performance out of necessity. If nothing else, it was refreshing to see Maurice go against type.
Boucher did his job. Buffalo's only goal came on a power play, off a pass that deflected off Tim Gleason's skate and right to Jason Pominville on the doorstep. It was exactly the kind of break the Canes didn't get at the other end.
"We played a really good game tonight," Boucher said. "It's unfortunate ... but sometimes, when it's tough, that's what happens. You play well and you still can't get a win. We deserved a better fate than that tonight. We played a solid game all over. I can't imagine Buffalo thought that was an easy game."
The rule of thumb in the NHL is that the top 8-10 spots in each conference are more or less set at Thanksgiving, with only the rare team making a move from the basement into postseason contention. The Hurricanes went into Friday 14th in the Eastern Conference, three games away from Thanksgiving.
Time is running out to turn this around. As well as they played Friday, without a few wins soon, it won't matter how well they play.