Another night when the Carolina Hurricanes could legitimately talk about how well they played and still lost.
Another night without any goals from Eric Staal or Jordan Staal or Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindholm.
Another night when Cam Ward gifted the opposing team a goal with an out-of-control rebound.
After Monday’s 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes remain nine points behind the Ottawa Senators for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into the NHL’s Christmas break. Closing that gap is probably less of a challenge than hurdling the six other teams that stand between them and the Senators.
Despite having a losing record and a minus-21 goal differential, despite an anemic offense and the worst goaltending in the NHL, the Hurricanes aren’t out of it yet, even after coach Bill Peters’ “line in the sand” at Thanksgiving came and went without any progress in the standings. Another holiday has rolled around, and the Hurricanes are hanging in there, on the periphery, in desperate need of a winning streak before it really is too late.
For the moment, it’s worth letting this play itself out. Neither general manager Ron Francis nor Eric Staal seems in any hurry to resolve his contract situation, and Ward has played so poorly that his market value is near nil anyway. The better Skinner plays, the more he might tempt another team at the deadline. The same goes for Jordan Staal, although his contract almost certainly makes him untradeable anyway.
As they did against the Capitals, the Hurricanes continue to play in a manner that should bring them success, generating scoring chances while limiting those of their opponents. In his second season, Peters has successfully installed and implemented his system, only to be confronted with an utter lack of corresponding results.
Over the first 34 games, the Hurricanes have averaged 11.6 high-quality scoring chances per game, while limiting opponents to 10.3, according to war-on-ice.com. That’s fifth-best in the NHL both overall and five-on-five. And yet they have been outscored 2.9-2.4, thanks to misfiring forwards and the worst goaltending in the NHL.
Eric Staal is on pace for 12 goals. Lindholm, the Hurricanes’ most disappointing player, is on pace for 10. Jordan Staal, whose game has picked up in a checking role with Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil, is on pace for 17.
Skinner had two impressive hat tricks in five days earlier this month, but he has eight goals in the other 32 games (and quickly regressed to his old habits over the past three games, in which the Hurricanes scored a total of three goals, none by Skinner). The only bright spot up front is second-year center Victor Rask.
There are no bright spots in net. Ward is 41st among 44 qualifying goalies with a .900 save percentage. Eddie Lack is dead last at .876 – a bust of a draft-day trade and an error compounded when Francis gave Lack a two-year extension before he played a game for the Hurricanes.
If either goalie can show any improvement the Hurricanes’ fortunes could turn quickly, so there’s no harm in seeing what happens. But don’t be deceived: This team has done this before. Another offseason talking about how well the team played in January and February when the pressure is off is going to lead to another season when the games in January and February again don’t matter.
If the Hurricanes don’t make progress quickly after Christmas, it’s time for Francis to make a clean sweep, whatever the return. That’s no reflection on Eric Staal or Ward or Skinner as people or players, but something’s missing here. It has been for years. With a great group to build around on the blue line, and only five forwards under contract for next season, Francis can give himself that rarest of opportunities in the salary-cap era: a fresh start.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock