For a coach who just saw a seven-game home winning streak come to an end, Bill Peters was surprisingly chipper. He liked the way the Carolina Hurricanes played. He enjoyed the end-to-end action and skill on display by not only the Washington Capitals but his own team as well. So the Hurricanes lost, in a shootout, naturally – there wasn't a lot otherwise for Peters to complain about.
“The lead changed three times,” Peters said. “Good game. Real good game. Two good teams. I thought it was outstanding.”
For 65 minutes Friday night, the Hurricanes were every bit the equal of the Capitals, who came into the game one spot ahead in the standings but nine points ahead. With six minutes to play, the Hurricanes held the lead, only for T.J. Oshie to bounce a deflection past Cam Ward.
That sparked a playoff-style celebration from the Capitals, and while it's dangerous to infer too much from jubilation, it was hard to shake the sense that the Capitals just wanted it a little bit more in the third, that perhaps being the difference between a team that makes the playoffs on a regular basis and a team that hasn't made it in seven seasons.
But that should take nothing away from how the Hurricanes played to that point, at even strength and on special teams. The margin between these teams isn't nearly as large on the ice as it is in the standings. In two games against the Capitals this season, both in Raleigh, the Hurricanes have three points thanks to Friday's 4-3 shootout loss and the 5-1 win on Nov. 12 that kicked off the home winning streak.
This is a measurement-stick kind of weekend for the Hurricanes with three home games in four nights, and not just against the Capitals.
They get the Buffalo Sabres at home, again, Saturday night, one of only six teams in the NHL with fewer points than the Hurricanes going into Friday's games. That makes this game, coming 23 ½ hours after Friday's loss, a chance to prove the Hurricanes can take care of business against a lesser opponent at home.
And then Monday, the Detroit Red Wings visit, some distance removed from the standards of their recent dynasty but still with the aura of the winged wheel – and, presumably, a healthy smattering of Red Wings fans in the stands making it somewhat of a neutral site, a different kind of challenge.
While the Hurricanes still face a steep uphill climb into the playoff picture even after this recent run of success at home, these are games they need to win, not only for the points in the standings but the pride in the dressing room.
The home streak is over, but the Hurricanes fought valiantly to keep it alive Friday, every bit the equal of the Capitals until the dreaded shootout arrived.
And given Ward's 16-39 career record and .632 save percentage in shootouts, perhaps it's time for Peters to consider going to the bullpen next time? That gambit is often talked about among outsiders but rarely seriously considered by coaches, but if Ward's going to play every night – and he's going to start again Saturday, and presumably Monday as well – why not give his legs and confidence a rest by bringing Michael Leighton (or Eddie Lack or whomever) in cold?
It's not like he can do any worse than Ward, historically speaking. The risk of injury is there, but seems slight, or at least no less than Leighton faced coming in the game in the second period Tuesday. In an era where coaches have started pulling goalies for an extra skater far earlier than the one minute that used to be the standard, someone's eventually going to give the closer goalie a try in the shootout. If not the Hurricanes, then who?
A better strategy would be not letting games get to a shootout, which proved successful in the seven previous home games, all wins. The Hurricanes were six minutes away from making it eight Friday night, but there's no time to lament.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock