For 13 games, the Carolina Hurricanes had been able to avoid that dagger of a loss – one in regulation, one without a point.
But the Dallas Stars handed the Canes just that kind of loss Saturday, badly damaging Carolina’s ever-slim playoff chances with a 3-0 victory at PNC Arena.
“We knew how hungry they were,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “The only thing we can do is be spoilers.”
The Canes had taken points in 13 straight games, a franchise record, and gone 9-0-4 since a regulation loss March 7 against the Colorado Avalanche. On Thursday, they rallied late to tie the score against the Columbus Blue Jackets, then won 2-1 in overtime.
But the Stars were the spoilers. Jason Spezza’s goal at 4:46 of the second period gave the Stars a 1-0 lead, and goalie Kari Lehtonen made it stand up until empty-net goals by John Klingberg and Devin Shore in the final two minutes of regulation sealed it. Lehtonen had 25 saves in his third shutout of the season.
The loss dropped the Canes six points behind the Boston Bruins, who won earlier Saturday and hold the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card playoff spot with 90 points. With five games remaining in the regular season, the only thing the Canes (35-28-14) can hope to do is try to win them all and hope 94 points are enough.
“This one wasn’t easy to take, obviously,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “We’ve played some great hockey and given ourselves a chance. It hurts. It’s been a fun ride.”
The Canes’ next two games are on the road – at Pittsburgh on Sunday, then at Minnesota on Tuesday. Both are playoff-bound teams.
Carolina coach Bill Peters didn’t think his team was tight Saturday or feeling the pressure of the moment in the last game of a homestand.
“Everything was just a little bit off, for whatever reason,” he said. “Everything was a grind, everything seemed hard. A split-second late, or in the feet, offensively.”
The Canes got a solid game from goalie Cam Ward, who was beaten on a well-placed, top-shelf shot off the rush by Spezza from the left circle. Ward denied Spezza on a third-period breakaway and made other good stops to keep the Canes in it.
The Stars (32-35-11), who won the Central Division with 105 points a year ago and then won a first-round playoff series, have struggled with injuries and inconsistent play this season. But Lehtonen did his job, and the Stars kept tight gaps defensively, got sticks on pucks and blocked shots.
“I thought both teams skated well, but I didn’t think there was much at the net,” Peters said. “Both teams did a good job defending. There wasn’t a lot going on.”
The Canes, shut out for the fourth time this season, appeared a half-beat slow on many plays and had several near-misses offensively, passing up shots to try and make plays or misfiring when plays were made.
Jeff Skinner, who had scored 12 goals in March, held on to the puck too long on an early odd-man rush instead of shooting. Later in the first, the Canes’ Teuvo Teravainen made a sharp pass through the crease to Elias Lindholm, who couldn’t handle the puck and get off a shot with an open net.
“We created some opportunities for ourselves but weren’t able to execute like we normally do,” Skinner said. “We needed to put a few more shots on net.”
The Canes had 16 shots blocked and another 10 attempts missed the net. Skinner, who has 32 goals this season, was limited to one shot.
In the third, Sebastian Aho was in position to knock in a rebound with Lehtonen out of position but couldn’t get his stick on the puck. So it went.
“We’re in a tough spot with a very thin margin for error, if there is a margin for error,” Canes forward Lee Stempniak said. “It’s not going to change our mindset at all. We’re going to go out and try to play very well. We still feel confident about ourselves as a team.”