The Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to run out of answers.
Canes coach Bill Peters didn‘t have much to say, or wanted to say, Sunday after a 4-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at PNC Arena. The Canes’ players were somber after a fourth straight loss.
Yes, Leafs rookie Auston Matthews scored his 28th goal with the kind of move – hooked from behind, falling, still getting off the shot – befitting the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL draft.
Yes, goalie Curtis McElhinney, a waiver-wire pickup last month from Columbus, had some high-quality saves among his 37 saves, forward Connor Brown scored twice with bursts of speed down the slot and defenseman Jake Gardiner had a goal and two assists.
But this loss stung the Canes. After their mandated bye week, they had pointed to a five-game homestand as an opportunity to reel off some wins and get back into reasonable playoff contention in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
And then they lost 2-1 in overtime to the Colorado Avalanche, the worst team in the league.
And then they lost to the Leafs, a team they’re chasing in the Eastern Conference, in a game Sunday that had a must-win feel – at least for the Canes – to it.
With 29 games remaining in the regular season, the Canes had hope. But there was more of a pessimistic vibe in the locker room Sunday after the loss dropped them to 24-23-8 and last in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s frustrating,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “Everyone knows where we are. We need to find ways to win games, to get results.”
That takes effort from everyone in the lineup and Peters didn’t think he got that Sunday.
“I didn’t think we had enough fire,” he said in a postgame news conference with unusually brief answers from the coach.
After a scoreless first period, the Leafs took the lead on Brown’s first goal and then the move from Matthews that will be shown repeatedly in NHL video highlights. Despite being hooked from behind by Canes forward Phil Di Giuseppe and then falling forward, Matthews got off a backhander that got through goalie Cam Ward.
“Great individual effort and a great goal,” Canes center Jordan Staal said.
It was the kind of moment that could help Matthews win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, although the Leafs have another rookie forward in Mitch Marner who could be a finalist along with forward Patrik Laine of Winnipeg. Marner missed Sunday’s game, and the Leafs’ 6-3 loss Saturday against Ottawa, with an injury.
While the Canes and the crowd of 10,004 had to be impressed by Matthews’ goal, Peters believed the Leafs’ third was bigger. Gardiner, who had a plus-4 game, winged a long shot from the left point six minutes into the third period that Ward couldn’t track.
“I thought we sagged, definitely,” Peters said.
Brown’s second goal, a near repeat of the first, ended the night for Ward, who was relieved by Eddie Lack.
The Canes had some good looks on power plays – Justin Faulk hitting the post in the second period – and the line of Skinner, center Teuvo Teravainen and Di Giuseppe combined for 18 shots. But Skinner and Di Giuseppe were on the ice for three Leafs goals and Teravainen for two.
The Canes now have seven teams between them and the second wild-card spot. Peters said he believes his team is capable of a turnaround, of something like an eight-game win streak, which could be their only saving grace at this point.
“We know we’ve got a lot of hockey left,” Skinner said. “You’ve got to stay with it and keep working. We’re in a little bit of funk now, but you’ve got to find ways to get out of it. The only way to do that is to do it yourself. You can’t sit around and wait for things to break your way.”
Canes vs. Penguins
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday
Where: PNC Arena