In putting together their unbeaten November, the Carolina Hurricanes were so good late in games that they didn’t need to be all that good at the beginning. It caught up with them Thursday.
Last season, last month even, the Hurricanes lose this game 5-1. Maybe 6-1. Maybe worse. Cam Ward was that good Thursday night. He saved a handful of goals and no small amount of embarrassment.
But not even Ward could bail the Hurricanes out from a dismal first period against the Winnipeg Jets. He kept the Hurricanes in the game – they were on the power play in the third period with a chance to tie the score – but this time they couldn’t deliver. A late empty-net goal made it a 3-1 win for old colleague Paul Maurice, whose Jets were only briefly pressed by his former team early in the third period.
An announced crowd of 10,005 just barely avoided a second four-figure attendance within four days, but that represented an improvement from Monday, and the Hurricanes had been giving fans a reason to come back out – wins in five of six November games, and even the sole overtime loss was in comeback fashion. New coach Bill Peters had impressed with his no-holds-barred management of the bench and Ward continued to play well.
But the Hurricanes were playing with fire, and they went up in flames Thursday. In their previous three games, two wins and an overtime loss, they were outshot a combined 37-12 in the first period, giving up the first goal twice. That made Thursday’s 13-6 Winnipeg shot advantage in the first and Blake Wheeler’s opening goal, his first of two, not entirely unpredictable.
Winning can be a funny thing. When you’ve been as good late as the Hurricanes have recently, sometimes a little complacency is unavoidable early. At least, that’s the most plausible explanation for Thursday’s debacle during the opening 20 minutes. Even the things the Hurricanes have been doing well, like faceoffs, were a disaster.
“I guess that’s what it looks like,” Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason said. “Coach has been talking about getting our first periods going and we didn’t show that tonight. We have to focus on it and come out with a better effort.”
It’s easy now to write off the October swoon for so many reasons, from injuries to the new coaching staff to the long road trip through Western Canada, since November has gotten off to such a promising start.
Thursday will serve as a reality check, as so often happens in these situations: It’s hard work to win in the NHL on a nightly basis, and any slippage is quickly exposed – even at home, even against Winnipeg’s backup goalie, and doubly so against the Boston Bruins, where the Hurricanes will travel Saturday.
“We’re in these games that are going right down to the wire, one-goal games, and normally in November we’ve been on the right end of it,” Hurricanes forward Zach Boychuk said. “We definitely need to be a lot better out of the gate and be a little bit more consistent period-to-period.”
Winnipeg certainly was the hungrier team from the start Thursday, and while the Hurricanes tried to mount another third-period rally, down by only a goal and quite undeservedly so, they never found their stride.
“I didn’t like our start again, so we addressed it,” Peters said. “Obviously we had the statistical evidence. It was a similar-type start. Usually we have more energy than we did tonight, for whatever reason.”
It’s a much easier game with a lead. The Hurricanes have been doing it the hard way. Thursday it caught up to them.