Tampa Bay pushes past Canes in third for 6-3 win

Hurricanes fall to Lightning in NHL action

Check out photos from the Carolina Hurricanes game against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, March 21, 2019.
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Check out photos from the Carolina Hurricanes game against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, March 21, 2019.

The Carolina Hurricanes were hoping to catch the Tampa Bay Lightning on an off-night, perhaps a little tired a night after a tough, emotional overtime win against the Washington Capitals.

But the Canes learned a hard truth. The Lightning have no real off-nights and didn’t Thursday, scoring four times in the third period in racing past the Canes 6-3 at PNC Arena.

Any regulation loss this late in the season is a stinger and it was for the Canes (40-26-7), who are pushing for their first playoff berth since 2009. That left team captain Justin Williams in an foul mood, saying the Canes gave the game away after taking a 3-2 lead into the third period.

Williams used a stronger, more profane word -- three times -- in making his point.

“We (expletive) it away and it’s unacceptable,” Williams said.

Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour had a different take and explanation: the best team won.

“They’re too good,” Brind’Amour said. “We weren’t good tonight. They’re too good to not be good, if you know what I mean. So that’s a double whammy. We kind of got what we deserved, really, at the end of the day because they were the better team.”

The best team in the league. The Lightning (58-13-4), winning a seventh straight game, already has clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best record and secured home ice for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Staal (11) falls to the ice with an injury as Andrei Svechnikov (37), of Russia, struggles with Tampa Bay Lightning’s Braydon Coburn (55) and Ryan Callahan (24) during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Gerry Broome AP

The Lightning will open the playoffs against the team in the second wild-card position. The Canes hold the first wild-card spot, now two points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, and got another look at what everyone in the Eastern Conference will be up against come April and the postseason.

The Canes had two scary moments in the game. Jordan Staal and then Sebastian Aho left the game with injuries -- Staal taking a hit to the head from Tampa Bay’s Yanni Gourde in the first period, and Aho banging his knee in a collision with teammate Nino Niederreiter in the second period.

Staal was momentarily down on the ice and appeared dazed while Gourde was given a match penalty and left the ice to boos -- the forward possibly facing disciplinary action from the league.

“It’s a fast game and things happen and obviously you never want to see those hits,” Staal said. “I was fortunate to come out of it feeling all right.”

Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal talks about taking a hit to the head from Yanni Gourde of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Canes' inability to hold on to the lead in the third period of a 6-3 loss at PNC Arena on March 21, 2019.

Staal has missed a big chunk of games this season with concussion issues and there was the fear he might have sustained another on the hit, as Gourde drove his shoulder into Staal’s head as Staal was leaning forward.

But Staal was back in the second, beating goalie Louis Domingue on a breakaway for a 3-2 lead. Niederreiter and Dougie Hamilton had scored in a 2-2 first period. Aho also returned.

“I thought everyone was engaged and it kind of fell off in the third and we let them creep back in,” Staal said. “They have the talent to burn you if you take the foot off the gas.”

Anthony Cirelli tied the score for the Lightning in the third and Ryan Callahan’s goal at 10:09 -- Callahan slipping in for a backdoor score -- gave Tampa Bay the lead. A tripping penalty against Carolina’s Micheal Ferland led to a power-play goal by Brayden Point -- Steven Stamkos scored on the power play in the first -- and a 5-3 lead as goalie Curtis McElhinney faced 14 shots in the third. Ryan McDonagh added a late empty-netter.

Consider that Aho is the Canes’ top goal-scorer with 30. Point has 39, Stamkos 38 and Nikita Kucherov 37. Tyler Johnson, who scored late in the first, has 27 goals. Tampa Bay is that loaded with skill and firepower.

The Canes had three power plays, getting three minutes of power-play time after Gourde’s match penalty, but couldn’t counter.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper called it a “pretty gritty effort” against a Canes team he credited with being among the “hottest” in the league in 2019.

“If we’re going to play a team that good, everyone has to be dialed right in,” Brind’Amour said.

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.