The way the final goal was scored Sunday night, while entirely coincidental, managed to be even more galling for Carolina Hurricanes fans than the mere fact of its scoring.
First of all, there was Cam Ward leaving a rebound sitting at his pads for Taylor Hall to poke past him for the overtime winner that vaulted the New Jersey Devils farther ahead in the standings and effectively and pragmatically, if not technically and mathematically, made a playoff spot a near impossibility for the Hurricanes after they took one lonely point from three Metropolitan Division games over the weekend.
Ward faced only 21 shots but managed to give up three goals – the Hurricanes, as usual, put up 42 in the 3-2 loss, mostly from the perimeter – and while that was not entirely Ward’s fault it did serve as another reminder that the Hurricanes went into this season hoping not to rely on Ward in such critical games and were left in this fix by Scott Darling’s utter failure to claim the No. 1 job, underlined by another brutal performance in Thursday’s 5-2 loss at New Jersey.
Throw in Friday’s 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders, and over the three games, the Hurricanes outshot the opposition 116-66 and were outscored 11-4 while playing against two of the worst goalies in the NHL, statistically speaking – New Jersey backup Kevin Kincaid (twice) and Islanders backup Thomas Greiss.
Then there was All-Star Noah Hanifin, who as much as anyone represents the Hurricanes’ youth movement and rebuilding under Ron Francis, giving up on the play and allowing Hall to beat him to Ward’s crease to knock in his own rebound. Hanifin is unquestionably talented, but in his third year in the NHL still makes basic, avoidable mistakes in his own end.
This particular Hanifin error was entirely one of complacency and mental weakness, something that still infects the Hurricanes’ dressing room despite the interventions of Justin Williams. There’s no point in rebuilding around raw, young talent if that talent doesn’t get any better; Hanifin is still very early on the timeline for a defenseman’s development, but his lack of progress is increasingly disconcerting.
The goal-scorer himself, Hall, also inadvertently highlighted a major problem with the Hurricanes. Ray Shero was tasked with rebuilding the Devils after they withered in the final years under Lou Lamoriello. Like Francis, Shero has slowly added young talent to a core of older players like Travis Zajac and Andy Greene; unlike Francis, he lucked out with the No. 1 pick last year to add Swiss center Nico Hischier.
But Shero also took matters into his own hands: In his second offseason on the job, he made a massive player-for-player trade to land Hall for defenseman Adam Larsson. This fall, he brought in defenseman Sami Vatanen for forward Adam Henrique. Both Hall and Vatanen are elite talent in their 20s, upgrades over their predecessors. Francis, meanwhile, has yet to make a meaningful trade in four seasons as GM – nor make the playoffs. After beating the Hurricanes twice in four days, the Devils now look like they’ll make it in their third season under Shero – and with their No. 1 goalie being hurt for a good chunk of the second half to boot.
And who was on the ice for that critical sequence in overtime? Hanifin, Jeff Skinner and Derek Ryan. Ryan, who hasn’t recorded a point in 11 games, played 20 minutes Sunday and was minus-2 in the most baffling of several baffling Bill Peters decisions Sunday. Peters finally got a useful call-up from the AHL, center Lucas Wallmark, and used him for a paltry 4:28. There’s no point in complaining about the roster if you’re going to chain a guy to Joakim Nordstrom (two goals) and Phil Di Giuseppe (one goal) instead of bumping him up to play ahead of underperforming veterans like Ryan and Victor Rask.
Ryan is a good guy and has a role to play on this team, but he’s struggling right now. If there aren’t better options on the bench in overtime, that’s on Francis and Peters both.
Since moving into the eighth playoff spot early last week, the Hurricanes took one point from three critical Metropolitan Division games. By one advanced metric, at hockeyviz.com, the Hurricanes’ chances of making the playoffs plummeted from over 50 percent to 28 percent in four days. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils have shot past them, essentially staking out their spots and leaving the Hurricanes as one of four teams battling for the final spot, and in third place in that race.
There’s still a lot of hockey left – 22 games – but the Hurricanes’ failure to capitalize on these three key division games, ceding position to the Devils, removes them from what was briefly a position of strength and puts them back in a position of weakness. The final, infuriating goal of the weekend neatly managed to capture why and how.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock