RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes season may be at the tipping point.
After a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at PNC Arena on Tuesday, the Hurricanes now are winless in their past four games. They no longer lead the Southeast Division lead. Theyre just 7-7 on home ice. And their power play is struggling mightily.
On top of the on-ice issues, defenseman Justin Faulk, one of the Canes (15-15-2) best young stars, went down with a lower-body injury in the second period Tuesday. Faulk did not return to the game and Canes coach Kirk Muller did not have an update on the injury after the game, but there were a lot of very somber looks in the locker room.
The Panthers (8-16-6), who have had their season derailed by injuries, came into the game off six consecutive losses. But Carolina played Monday night in New York while Florida had the day off, and the Panthers were rested and ready. And hungry.
They outworked us. Thats all it comes down to, Canes goalie Dan Ellis said. You look at their lineup, they dont have any superstars. Theyre all injured. They come out, they stick to a game plan, they execute and they work. Thats what beat us.
With Jacob Markstrom steady in net, stopping 33 of 34 shots, the Panthers finally found a way to get the pack past Ellis and break open a scoreless game in the third. Tomas Fleischmann scored after a Canes turnover, then the Panthers without a power-play goal the past nine games took advantage of Canes penalties to score twice on the power play.
After slashing call against Canes defenseman Jamie McBain, then a delay-of-game penalty against Jay Harrison, the Panthers quickly took advantage of a 5-on-3 as Marcel Goc redirected a shot past Ellis. Shawn Matthias, who was nearly scratched because of the flu, then scored a 5-on-4 goal for a 3-0 lead.
They moved around, they created havoc and they executed, Ellis said.
Jordan Staal scored the Canes only goal on the power play with 2 minutes, 33 seconds left in regulation to make it 3-1. That came after a skirmish that ended with Carolina forward Kevin Westgarth pummeling Panthers rookie Eric Selleck, giving the home crowd something to cheer, but there would be no comeback as Jerred Smithson finished it off with an empty-netter.
By then, there has already been blood on the ice all of it from Carolina defensemen. Bobby Sanguinetti suffered a cut above his upper lip after catching a skate from the Panthers Scottie Upshall as they tumbled along the boards. Later, Tim Gleason was high-sticked by Upshall.
Gleason needed 16 stitches and Sanguinetti 13. Both returned to the game.
Faulk did not. He limped to bench after taking a hit along the boards from forward Jack Skille with almost 11 minutes left in the second.
Were not into making any excuses but I think when we lost Faulk, going down to the five (defensemen), back to back (games), made it really hard on our D going into the third, Muller said.
But the Canes had some chances before the third to take the lead. Westgarth missed an open net, clanging the puck off the goal frame. Drayson Bowman had a breakaway, but couldnt control a rolling puck as he tried to load up a shot.
Upshalls double-minor for high-sticking came with 8:23 left in the second period. The door was open for the Canes. Florida is 30th in the NHL on the penalty kill, but again Carolina looked hesitant on passes and too tentative.
Its just mental, Muller said of the power play. We have the skill level that a power play should work.
Ellis made his second straight start for the Hurricanes after being the hardluck loser Monday in the 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers. He faced 44 shots and had to make a slew of sharp stops to keep it scoreless until the third.
Ellis, clearly perturbed, was direct and to the point after the game.
We have to pick it up as a team, he said. Weve let a few games slip here in the last little bit and its just not good enough.