RALEIGH — Kirk Muller is still seeking that elusive first victory as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Muller now is 0-3 after the Canes' 3-2 loss Saturday to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the RBC Center, and the third loss easily was the most excruciating - for Muller and the Hurricanes.
The Canes played with energy and emotion much of the game. Defenseman Jamie McBain, given a chance to play, produced two goals. Goaltender Brian Boucher made some tough saves, Eric Staal played 27 minutes, and the Hurricanes battled the best team in the NHL's Eastern Conference on even terms.
In the final two minutes, the Canes had a 5-on-3 power play and pulled Boucher for a sixth attacker. But Pens goalie Brent Johnson simply would not allow a tying goal.
With 17 seconds left in regulation, Carolina's Jussi Jokinen had an open shot with Johnson out of position. But Johnson managed to barely get his toe on the puck and prevent it from crossing the goal line.
"If it hits the inside post, it's a tie game and we still get the power play going into overtime," Jokinen said. "Obviously it's very frustrating. You can't deny that. It has been really tough.
"But there's nothing you can do. You can't change the past, just (look) to the future. It's never too late to turn around the season. Just keep believing, keep your head up."
That's getting tougher and tougher for the Canes (8-16-4). They're winless in their last six games as they head out for a four-game road trip in Canada.
McBain had been a healthy scratch for Muller's first two games and initially was listed as a scratch again Saturday. But Muller made a game-time decision to put seven defensemen in the lineup and make center Tim Brent a healthy scratch.
"He told everybody to come ready in (pregame) warmups to play," McBain said. "I was ready. It's one of those things where while you're out (of the lineup) you have to take it for what it's worth, learn the game, watch the game, reflect on your own game and where you're at.
"Once you get back in, you have to do your part to win your job back. That's what I tried to do."
After a scoreless first period in which only the sharpness of Johnson in net kept from the Canes from scoring once or twice, the Pens took a 1-0 lead when Sidney Crosby fed Craig Adams for a shot and goal. But McBain tied it 1-1 late in the second on a big shot from the point set up by Joni Pitkanen - McBain's first goal of the season.
Goals by Arron Asham and Pascal Dupuis in the third pushed the Pens' lead to 3-1, pleasing the many Pittsburgh fans in the crowd of 17,696. But McBain struck again, crashing the net to knock in the rebound of a Patrick Dwyer shot for a power-play goal.
In the final three minutes of regulation, the pens (16-7-4) began taking penalties. The first was for too many men on the ice. Then, Dupuis for holding, giving the Canes a minute and 38 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage.
With Boucher pulled, the Canes had six attackers and Justin Faulk and Staal got off shots before Jokinen just missed. The Pens' Matt Cooke was called for tripping with 56 seconds left in the third.
Staal and Jeff Skinner were held without a point - Skinner missing an open net in the second period - while Adams, a former Hurricanes forward, had a goal and assist for the Pens and was named the game's first star. One scary moment for the Pens was when center Jordan Staal, Eric's brother, left the ice bleeding in the third after taking a puck in the face. Staal suffered no other major injuries.
Muller, for the third time, tried to be upbeat after the game. "Of the last three games, that was our best," he said. "They have to believe it's in the right direction."
McBain, for one, believes the Hurricanes can rebound - and soon.
"We were a couple of inches from crossing the goal line and tying it up, even going ahead," he said. "Eventually it's going to turn."