After 24 pretty good hours for the Carolina Hurricanes franchise, Friday night delivered a four-minute reminder that it isn't always sunshine and rainbows in the NHL.
In the wake of a win in Washington on Thursday and Thomas Dundon's introduction as the team's new owner Friday, things were looking up for the Hurricanes, right through the first 56 minutes and change Friday.
Then Noah Hanifin made his second catastrophic late play in the past three games to allow the Capitals to tie the score, both officials missed an obvious lip-splitting high stick on Jordan Staal and Victor Rask lost a faceoff in the Washington zone that allowed the Capitals to go end-to-end and score the winner with 1.3 seconds left, a potentially season-altering two-point swing in 3 minutes, 8 seconds and a 4-3 loss.
Instead of sending another message to the Metropolitan Division – the Hurricanes were 4-0-1 in their previous five division games – by sweeping this two-day set with the Capitals, they were left beaten and bereft. The giant big-screen TV in the locker room was splattered with unknown liquid, a visible sign of the barely hidden frustration.
“It's part of the game,” said Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, who scored what should have been the game-winner by turning Washington defenseman John Carlson inside out and rifling a top-shelf shot. “You play 82 games and this is one of 82. It was kind of a tough break, but at the same time, we've got more games. We've got to move on.”
That's how it goes in the NHL, especially for a team trying to bob and weave its way into the playoffs. Even little mistakes are harshly punished, let alone big ones. Hanifin, the team's sole All-Star, for reasons easily explained but difficult to justify, has made two in the past four days, single-handedly costing the Hurricanes points.
On Tuesday, Tampa Bay's tiny Tyler Johnson outmuscled Hanifin on the rush to score the game-winner, as embarrassing a fate as any NHL defenseman has ever suffered. Friday, with the Canes trying to protect a 3-2 lead, Hanifin threw a blind pass up the middle from behind the Carolina net, which Brett Connolly popped instantly past Cam Ward. Off the glass and out, kid, like the old days. (And here, Glen Wesley nods sagely.)
There's so much good in Hanifin's game and so much “I hope my high-school buddies never see that clip.” He's only 20, but he has played 204 NHL games. He may not be a finished product, but it's fair to expect more than this at this point. Or less than this, if you just want to look at the self-sabotaging mistakes.
“Yeah, you got to stay with him, you've got to teach,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “You've to to learn from it. You've got to stay with people. It's easy to go away. Right now, we've got the opportunity to put a game away and we give up two in the last three (minutes) roughly. It would have been nice to lock it down.”
But this isn't entirely on Hanifin. It never is. The Hurricanes should have been on the power play with 32 seconds to go, with Staal's lip split open, and even if they didn't score they would have started overtime 4-on-3 with a chance to pick up an extra point.
There's no point in complaining about NHL officiating, which is like the weather. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, it rains on everyone the same and it evens out in the end. In a way, it was karmic payback for Thursday, when Rask scored the game-winner after the Capitals thought the puck had been possessed on a delayed penalty and play should have been blown dead.
That won't make Peters feel any better or heal Staal's split lip. This wasn't a judgment call, or a debatable interpretation of a rule (like Justin Faulk's questionable interference penalty on Tom Wilson; you may not like it, but all you can do, or should do, is shrug). This was as glaring a missed call as you'll ever see, and no excuse for either referee – Steve Kozari and T.J. Luxmore – to miss it. Staal said he couldn't get an explanation, either.
The last goal was a chain of errors, with Rask losing the faceoff and Brock McGinn whiffing on a chance to clear the puck when Alexander Ovechkin lost control, breiefly, and Ward flopping around in the crease. It was basically a repeat of the N.C. State game in this same building Thursday, except the Capitals finished with a four-point play for the win.
Dundon was watching from a suite, and got a nice round of applause when he was shown on the scoreboard. (It was subtle and unannounced, and many fans may even have missed it.) He's been living and dying with the team for months now – he even went back to Peter Karmanos to offer more money after walking away from the deal initially, because he was hooked – so these emotions won't be new to him.
But they will be fresh, as they will be for the team, and they will linger. Because if it comes down to the final days and a point or two, circle these as two that never should have gotten away.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock