Luke DeCock

Benched stars sum up Hurricanes’ dismal night – DeCock

The Canes' Jeff Skinner (53) is denied at the goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Olli Maatta (3) and goalie Matt Murray (30) during the second period at PNC Arena.
The Canes' Jeff Skinner (53) is denied at the goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Olli Maatta (3) and goalie Matt Murray (30) during the second period at PNC Arena. cseward@newsobserver.com

If the Carolina Hurricanes were ever going to come back from a five-goal deficit, they would probably need Jeff Skinner and Teuvo Teravainen – first and tied for third on the team in scoring – to do it. And yet the third period began with the Hurricanes down five goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins and both Skinner and Teravainen stapled to the bench.

And they stayed there. For all 20 minutes of the third. For good reason.

The poor performances by the two stars were emblematic of an absolutely dismal performance by the Hurricanes, who came into the game with a chance to move into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and instead thoroughly embarrassed themselves in a 7-1 loss to the defending champs.

Teravainen’s miserable attempts to clear the puck led to Pittsburgh’s first two goals – directly, on the first; indirectly, on the second. Skinner was called for embellishment and then later for unsportsmanlike conduct, four penalty minutes’ worth of lost composure.

“I didn’t think I said enough to warrant the second penalty, but that’s what I got,” Skinner said. “I hurt the team. They scored on the power play.”

You could chalk this up to the Hurricanes losing to a better team, which both by appearance and in the standings, the Penguins certainly are. But it wasn’t that the Penguins played better as much as the Hurricanes played worse – worse than their opponent and worse than they have played at home in months, even if their edge on their game has been slowly dulling lately.

“It adds up,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “Next thing you know it gets away from you and you can’t recover. We got away with it a couple times when we outscored our mistakes and tonight there was no chance to do that.”

There was plenty of blame to go around Friday. Elias Lindholm found himself alone in front of the Pittsburgh net without an opponent in the same ZIP code and managed to stickhandle the puck into the corner. Skinner got fancy in the offensive zone and passed the puck directly to Sidney Crosby, springing him on a breakaway. The Penguins were given the freedom to crash the crease at will.

Cam Ward made that save on Crosby, and while the seven goals are the most he has allowed all season, he had a number of big saves early to keep the Hurricanes in the game before a sleep-walking second period allowed the Penguins to run away with it. Ward, apparently fed up with the flaccid defense in front of him, popped a prone Patrick Hornqvist in the face after the Penguins’ sixth goal.

Still, questions about Ward’s fitness and fatigue will persist. This was his 21st straight start, and he has looked tired at times since giving up a couple of fluky goals in the home win over Columbus 10 days ago, allowing 20 goals over five games starting that night. His teammates haven’t helped, either.

“We’ve been a little unsound for a week,” Hurricanes defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “We got some wins, but we scored seven goals in one game, got some big saves, penalty-kill was 100 percent. There’s some stuff we needed to address going into this week, playing three of the top five teams in the league, if you go by points, and they will make you pay on big errors and they’ve made us pay the last two games without question. ...

“We haven’t had a run of giving up 40 shots and chances like this since Bill took over, in 2 ½ years. This is really the most we’ve given up over the course of games. Certainly we were aware of that, we tried to address a lot of that yesterday, and it worked for 10 minutes.”

Having been yanked in Columbus on Tuesday, it only makes sense for Ward to sit out Saturday’s game there in favor of Michael Leighton in this 22-hour back-to-back. (One likely reason why Leighton didn’t relieve Ward out of mercy after the sixth or seventh goals; Leighton’s recent AHL workload is another.) Certainly, if the Hurricanes had a reliable NHL-caliber backup, there wouldn’t be any question about it, especially with another critical game at Washington looming Monday.

“We’re leaning that way,” Peters said.

Even good teams have clunkers. The 2006 Stanley Cup champions lost 9-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers, at home, after winning nine straight. But this four-game stretch – at Columbus, Pittsburgh, at Columbus, at Washington – always had a sink-or-swim feel to it. The Hurricanes have been grinding away to get themselves in the playoff conversation, but at some point, to get over the hump, they’re going to have to take some points off the runaway top-four teams in the Metropolitan Division, these three and the Rangers.

The Hurricanes may not be able to catch up to that group, but they can’t punt against it, either. After Friday’s loss, they’re 3-5-1 against the Big Four, with only one win in the past seven games – and outscored 11-2 in the first half of this quartet of games. Not good enough, not for a team with playoff aspirations.

With wins in the next two games, and take four points from these four games, and no one will remember what happened Friday. But it’s going to be hard to forget.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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