The Carolina Hurricanes spent most of three months playing their way back into the playoff hunt, digging out of the hole they put themselves in back in October, working to the brink of the postseason, one point out.
In 10 days, they gave it all away. They go into the All-Star break back where they started, on the outside looking in, tied with five other teams for last in the conference with four teams to leapfrog, losers of five straight.
“We’re obviously a little frustrated with our game as of late,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Staal said. “There’s no better time than now to hit the reset button, come back ready to work.”
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They were riding high on Jan. 14 after a comeback win over the (woebegone) New York Islanders, one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot, eager to test themselves against a higher standard. That’s exactly what they got with a sink-or-swim stretch against the best teams in the NHL – two games against Columbus, one against Pittsburgh, one against Washington.
After being within touching distance of crossing the playoff rubicon, they lost all four, and each loss was worse than the last.
Which left the Hurricanes with Thursday as their point of no return going into the break. Circumstances would unavoidably be against them now, win or lose, but a win would at least allow them to stop the bleeding and take a few days off free of the lingering weight of failure. Instead, they’ll carry this 3-0 loss to the Kings with them for four days, lugging it around like luggage.
“Oh, it’s a bad taste, losing five straight,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “Tonight’s going to go a long way toward leaving a taste. The taste is in the mouth for the All-Star break”
There are teams that got off to better starts that can weather five-game losing streaks. There are teams with more talent that can lose five in a row and be confident of winning at least that many in short succession. The Hurricanes are neither. They have no margin for error, and they knew that coming in. They have to do it faster and smarter than the other guy. They have to be the harder-working team, in the right spots, no mistakes.
For big chunks of the season, they have done that. Their outstanding penalty-killing is testament to all of that, an aspect of the game where skill and flair take a back seat to effort and intelligence. Their anemic power play is testament to what they lack, where those criteria are reversed. Going 0-for-4 killed them Thursday, especially as the second and third periods wore on and it became increasingly clear the first goal was likely to be the winner. Which it was, since the Kings scored again 38 seconds later before tacking on an empty-netter.
“Whenever you’re on a losing streak like this you become a little fragile,” said Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk, who was on the ice for all three goals. “I think it’s showing a little bit because they get one, and we just can’t put an end to it right there. Something we need to learn from.”
They look tired now. Mentally. Physically. Their game has slipped. It’s less precise, less gritty. Cam Ward’s performance has declined since the beginning of that 21-start run in net, although he kept the Kings off the board for 55 minutes Thursday. Ward was so good in November and December, it created a false sense of security for everyone. Now that he clearly needs a rest, the Hurricanes can’t afford to give it to him.
He’ll get that rest this weekend, as will everyone else. They need it. There are 34 games left, and the Hurricanes will play them all. Strange things could happen. Lightning could strike. The odds are against them, though – and less than two weeks after they were finally lining up in their favor.
“Frustration is definitely seeping in and we’ve got to push through it and find ways to continue to be confident in what we want to do and stay believing in each other,” Staal said.
It takes a long time to climb up the standings in the NHL. For the Hurricanes, it took almost three months. The ride back down to the bottom is a lot quicker. For the Hurricanes, it took only 10 days.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock