Odds are, it could only get harder for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Harder to win. Harder to remain in the chase for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Canes were beaten 4-1 Friday by the Boston Bruins, losing back-to-back games in regulation for the first time since early December.
The Bruins (34-22-6), who appear playoff-bound, did what they needed to do to win a road game. Goalie Tuukka Rask allowed a power-play goal to rookie defenseman Noah Hanifin — a Boston native — early in the third period but nothing else, finishing with 39 saves.
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Matt Beleskey had a pair of goals, the second on a strong Boston response after Hanifin’s score made it a 2-1 game. Patrice Bergeron converted a bad Canes turnover into the Bruins’ first goal and Brad Marchand scored his 32nd of the season with a late empty netter.
“The guys gave everything they had,” Canes defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “We had plenty of good chances and their goalie made some great saves. Our guys gave everything they had but we just got beat, plain and simple.”
The Canes (28-25-10) remained two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hold the conference’s last wild-card. But the Pens also have four games-in-hand over Carolina.
Following a 3-1 road loss Thursday to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canes received some bad injury news Friday: forwards Andrej Nestrasil and Jay McClement, both hurt against the Leafs, would not be available. All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk, slowed by an ankle injury, would miss his second straight game and eighth in the past nine.
“You’re taking an all-star out of your lineup who leads us with 12 power-play goals,” Peters said of Faulk. “We miss that. We miss his ability to move the puck. … I don’t know how you replace an all-star when he’s out of your lineup.”
There also was the specter of what may come. The NHL trade deadline is Monday, and changes soon could be made.
Is Eric Staal playing his last games with the Canes? Could others such Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles, also be dealt?
General manager Ron Francis is the one with the answers and remains mum on his plans.
“It’s the same for everybody in the league,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “Right now our focus is on getting two points every night and climb up the standings.”
Bergeron scored after the Bruins’ Brett Connolly forced a turnover, Bergeron quickly lifting a backhander past Ward for his 23rd of the season.
Beleskey’s first goal came after he chipped the puck past Canes defenseman Michal Jordan, skated around Jordan and then ripped a shot that beat Ward to to far side.
Hanifin scored the third goal of the season three minutes into the third. Hanifin got off a shot that was left of the net, the puck bouncing off the end boards, off Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller and then off Rask.
Hanifin, 19, grew up a Bruins fan and played college hockey at Boston College last year. Because of the NHL’s quirky scheduling, it was the first time the Canes and Bruins have played this season.
But Beleskey scored his second goal — and fifth in the past four games — after another Canes turnover at 6:24 of the third and Tuukka Rask took it from there.
Victor Rask nearly tied the score after Hanifin’s goal, but Chara was able to use his long reach to knock Rask’s stick out of his hands.
“We were competitive,” Eric Staal said. “We just weren’t able to find enough offensively. We definitely had enough looks but it didn’t happen.”
Nestrasil was kept in a Toronto hospital Thursday night and cleared to return to Raleigh on Friday, Peters said. Nestrasil has an apparent back injury — a post on his official Facebook page Friday said it potentially could be season-ending.
Forward Brad Malone, placed on NHL waivers Thursday by the Canes, cleared waivers Friday and was in the lineup. Forward Nathan Gerbe, a healthy scratch the past seven games, also played.
After hosting the St. Louis Blues on Sunday, the Canes will play seven of the first eight games in March on the road. They also could have a new look, with or without the injured players.
“We’re fighting,” Staal said. “We’re still in the mix. We have to keep fighting.”