A somber Justin Williams sat in the Carolina Hurricanes dressing room Friday night, listening to questions about the Canes’ 6-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins but not entirely liking what he was hearing.
It would have been easy to use Jordan Staal’s absence as a crutch. Staal, a team co-captain and their best center, missed the game for personal and family reasons.
Williams didn’t do that.
“The storyline is they outworked us and showed us they wanted it more tonight,” Williams said.
With Staal out, Williams served as an alternate captain, wearing an “A” that some believe the veteran should have had all along. That he was minus-3 for the game factored into his disgust as the Canes went into the game before a near-sellout crowd — yes, with a lot of Pens fans in the house — with a chance to move back into playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Win and they were in. Instead, blown out on home ice.
“It’s frustrating because we’ve got to be better and certainly I’m at the top of that list,” Williams said.
That the Canes are one point below the playoff cutline after a four-day break between games, after going 0-3-1 in the past four games, is a a huge break. Had the Columbus Blue Jackets not had problems of their own — the Jackets are 3-6-1 in their last 10 — the Canes might have have been four or five points behind and be fast fading.
“We didn’t get the two points today but at the end of the day we’re right in there fighting for that wild-card spot,” defenseman Brett Pesce said.
The Canes kept pointing to February, with 10 home games, as the month they could make a push. As forward Teuvo Teravainen put it, “We had a really good chance to take over, win some games.”
A 4-4-2 record at home didn’t get it done.
The Penguins were 20-19-3 after a 4-0 loss to the Canes on Jan. 4 at PNC Arena. There was talk of general manager Jim Rutherford making some major moves as the Pens, after winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, stumbled along.
But the Pens are 16-3-1 since that loss and now dealing from strength, acquiring Derick Brassard from the Ottawa Senators on Friday. They’re talking a possible three-peat.
The Canes, in contrast, are 8-11-2 since that game, which was their second win of the season over the Pens. And their next three games are on the road — at Detroit on Saturday, followed by games against the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.
“The good thing about is you get to redeem yourself tomorrow,” Williams said.
Canes coach Bill Peters said Friday that Staal likely would miss the Red Wings game. That, again, would leave a big void in the lineup.
But the Canes have been outscored 17-5 in the past four games. They’re 0-10 on the power play. Their execution was amiss against the Pens, who aggressively forechecked and forced mistakes.
“They were on us,” Peters said.
Despite the D-zone struggles, despite the woeful lacking of scoring, despite a suddenly quiet power play, the Hurricanes landed in Detroit one point out of a wild-card playoff spot. That’s where they stand with 21 games remaining.
“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas,” Pesce said. “We know what’s at stake and one game is not going to change how we feel about that and try to mess with our confidence.”