Looking at the Carolina Hurricanes’ schedule, everyone agreed it would be a tough stretch.
In the Canes’ four games after a homestand, they had: at Columbus, Pittsburgh at home, at Columbus again and then at Washington.
And guess what? It was tough. As it turned out, too tough for the Canes to handle in taking on three of the best teams in the league.
Columbus beat the Canes twice, sandwiched around Carolina’s 7-1 loss to the Pens at PNC Arena. At that point, before Monday’s game, Canes coach Bill Peters said of the losing streak, “We’ve got to put the brakes on it, for sure.”
The problem is, no one has been slowing down the Caps, who now have points in 14 straight games and the best record in the NHL (32-9-6).
The Canes were beaten 6-1 on Monday at the Verizon Center but it’s not like they’re the only ones being run into the ice by the Caps of late. In its four previous home games, Washington had ripped the Blue Jackets 5-0, the Pens 5-2, the Chicago Blackhawks 6-0 and the Philadelphia Flyers 5-0.
“They’re playing well in all three zones,” Peters said after the game. “They’re playing well defensively and their transition game is very quick and they’re very committed and heavy in the offensive zone.”
The Canes had the early lead after a well-executed power play that ended with Jordan Staal scoring. But the most complete team in NHL, from the goal out, controlled much of the game as goalie Braden Holtby took care of his job, and the Caps’ play in their defensive zone was positionally sound and heavy. They made the most of their 25 shots, beating goalie Cam Ward six times.
“There wasn’t a lot of Grade-A chances, either way,” Canes defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “They had some traffic on some shots that snuck through. And they’re playing so well that once you get to 3-1, 4-1, you have to start taking some chances or capitalizing on the power play to catch up and obviously we weren’t able to do that. We weren’t creating much, five on five.”
The Caps did have bodies crowding Ward much of the game and there was little the Canes could do about it. As Staal said, “They did all the right things and they went to the net hard and created a lot of net-front (presence) and made it hard on the goalie.”
Carolina does not have a big, physical team, relying more on transitional speed, and the four-game stretch may have taken a toll on the Canes. Some mental fatigue also could be building. Ward started 21 straight games before Saturday’s game at Columbus. That’s asking a lot, even though the veteran goalie likes a heavy workload.
Carolina, now with four straight regulation losses, has one game before the NHL All-Star break – at home Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“We’ve got to find a way to dig deep and give it a strong effort before the break,” Staal said.
The Canes (21-19-7) were three points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference with 49 points after Monday’s game, but with two teams between them and the Flyers,who hold the second wild-card spot – the Boston Bruins (52 points) and Florida Panthers (50). The Canes have two games-in-hand on the Panthers and three on Boston.
Peters, as a coach, likes to say every game is a big one but called the Kings game “huge.” The Kings will be ending a four-game road trip that began with losses to the New York Islanders and New York Rangers before Tuesday’s game against New Jersey.
“We want to go into the All-Star break with a good taste in our mouth and be able to enjoy the All-Star break, then come back and re-set,” Peters said.