So here, just short of a quarter of the way through the season, is a turning point. After doing all the right things and failing to be rewarded for most of the past several weeks, the Carolina Hurricanes did none of the right things Saturday night and were duly punished. Duly embarrassed. Duly booed by those fans still willing to put in the effort.
A team that has been able to take pride in its hustle, if not its goal-scoring or goaltending, couldn’t even claim that Saturday. After four days off, the Hurricanes took a fifth unscheduled, snoozing their way through a 4-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in their worst performance of the year and worst under Rod Brind’Amour, whose dogged stoicism finally shattered with a tongue-lashing of the entire bench during a second-period timeout.
His other option at that point was to pull Scott Darling, who had been every bit as bad as his teammates, only less unusually so. With less than 24 hours ahead of Sunday’s quick turnaround against the New Jersey Devils, Brind’Amour needed to save Curtis McElhinney for that. So he yelled, instead.
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Not that it mattered, nor that Brind’Amour waited until the final six minutes to move Andrei Svechnikov up with Justin Willams and Jordan Staal, something that should have happened days if not weeks ago. (Brind’Amour wouldn’t commit to sticking with it Sunday.)
“It was a dud,” Williams said. “Just call it what it was. A dud. And certainly unacceptable.”
This team has a decision to make now: Get back to playing the way it played to start the season, even in the absence of any positive reinforcement, or throw in the towel. By Sunday night, the answer will be clear.
“That’s the first game where I have not been happy with everything,” Brind’Amour said. “Do you give it a pass? Do you shuffle the deck? I don’t know. We’ll think about it. We’ll look through it again and make an assessment for tomorrow.”
That’s not the only decision looming. Something has to be done about Darling, too. While the Hurricanes didn’t give him any help, two of the four goals he allowed shouldn’t get past any NHL goalie, and Darling flapped at both with his glove.
By the fourth goal, after he retrieved a puck out of his end of the rink after a false-start faceoff, the derisive applause was heard for the first time. And again the next time he handled the puck, with boos mixed in. Darling has, bewilderingly at times during his so-far unsuccessful stint with the Hurricanes, retained the confidence and support of a substantial (or at least vocal) portion of the fan base. Saturday night, it started to feel like even that was slipping away.
The yearned-for redemption after a summer spent losing weight and getting in shape is apparently not at hand. He’s marginally better than he was last season, but that’s still not close to good enough. He might not have cost them the game Saturday but he certainly wasn’t bailing them out, either, on a night they needed their goalie to save them.
He was legitimately good in his last start, a win over the Chicago Blackhawks, only to revert to his worst on Saturday, which has been the rule and not the exception. In his time with the Hurricanes he has yet to win consecutive starts.
Think about that: He’s never had a winning streak in this uniform.
When you’re struggling to convert even the most gilt-edged chances, pounding them into the opposing goalie’s logo, there’s no bigger deflator than seeing routine shots elude your own goalie, and that happens nearly every night when Darling is in net. Petr Mrazek will be back from injury soon, and the Hurricanes can’t keep sending Darling out like this, for his own sake if nothing else.
Not to say Darling is the Hurricanes’ only problem, only the most persistent one. There’s a long list of others, and effort hasn’t been one of them, at least until Saturday.
“It was just ‘meh.’ It was not the brand of hockey that we’ve become used to playing throughout the first few games of the season, definitely,” Williams said. “Good news behind that, we play again tomorrow. We can wash this and have a different tone.”
Regardless of the goaltending, regardless of their uncanny knack for peppering the opposing goalie in the logo, the Hurricanes have to be able to rely on themselves. Without that, none of the rest of it matters anyway.