RALEIGH — The season is fast sliding away from the Carolina Hurricanes.
A dismal 5-0 loss Thursday to the Tampa Bay Lightning was the Canes' sixth straight home-ice defeat at PNC Arena, dropping them further behind in the NHL's Eastern Conference and further eroding what little confidence may be left.
Canes coach Kirk Muller called his team "fragile," and there's no denying that. Carolina is 1-9-1 in its past 11 games, unable to handle adversity during games, unable to score big goals, unable to muster comebacks.
Goaltender Ben Bishop, traded to Tampa Bay on Wednesday by the Ottawa Senators, was razor-sharp in his first game for the Lightning (16-18-2). A big man at 6-foot-7 and 214 pounds, Bishop turned back 45 shots -- a season-high for the Canes -- for his second shutout of the season.
The offensive chances were there for the Canes, but Bishop was too agile, too steady, too strong. The Canes did get the puck past Bishop late in the first period, but Alexander Semin was ruled to have kicked the puck in the net with his right skate after a pass from Eric Staal.
The Hurricanes (16-18-2) continued to nose-dive in the standings, losing for the fourth straight time this season to the Lightning. The surging Washington Capitals moved into the Southeast Division lead Thursday, four points ahead of the Canes, who have 12 games remaining in the regular season.
After a scoreless first period, the Lightning scored three times in the second to take control. Forward Teddy Purcell scored in the first minute of the second and defenseman Keith Aulie in the final minute. Tom Pyatt scored with abut four minutes left in the period.
"We give up that first goal right at the start of the second and you could just see how it just deflated the group," Muller said.
Martin St. Louis ripped a shot past Canes goalie Dan Ellis early in the third for a 4-0 lead and forward Benoit Pouliot later made it 5-0. St. Louis also had a a pair of assists for a three-point game.
Ellis wanted to accept much of the blame for the Canes, saying he should have swallowed up Matt Carle's shot and not allowed Purcell to score off the rebound for the first goal.
"Honestly, I think we're playing good hockey. I need to make a save," he said. "It was a crappy rebound and it changes the momentum of the game. The way our team is, we need those saves.
"You need your goalie to go in there and steal a game for you, especially at a time like this. I didn't do that. I'll take that one on my own shoulders."
Soon after Purcell's goal 28 seconds into the second, the Canes had back-to-back power plays, including 37 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage. But Carolina couldn't score, couldn't change the momentum.
Later, the Canes' Riley Nash raced into the Tampa Bay zone to try and prevent an icing call against Carolina. Nash appeared to get his stick on the puck, but it was ruled Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer touched up first.
Nash then lost the faceoff in the Canes zone and allowed Pyatt to get inside him and redirect the puck past Ellis for a 2-0 lead. It was that kind of night for the Canes -- and the Lightning.
Aulie scored on a shot from the point with 43 seconds left in the second for Tampa Bay, which had captain Vincent Lacavalier back in the lineup for the first time in 10 games.
The Canes gave up four second-period goals Tuesday in the 5-3 loss to the Caps, and now have allowed a goal in the first two minutes of the second period in each of the last four games.
"We have to play sound hockey, but tonight for whatever reason we were losing our guys," Canes defenseman Jamie McBain said. "That's unacceptable this time of year with the playoff race we're trying to jump back into."
Since leading the Caps 2-0 after the first period of the March 14 game at PNC Arena, the Canes have been outscored 41-15. They lost that game 3-2, beginning their skid.
The Hurricanes are playing without injured goalie Cam Ward, without injured defensemen Justin Faulk and Joni Pitkanen. But they have a game in hand on the Caps and play them in Washington next week.
"We still have a chance. But the effort has to be there every shift, every game," said forward Tuomo Ruutu, who returned to the Canes lineup after missing two games with a lower-body injury.
Muller is trying hard to keep the faith in his team.
"We've got to find a way to stay resilient and keep on slugging it out," he said.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip