Luke DeCock

Baffling shootout choices one of many frustrations in avoidable Hurricanes loss

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) defends while Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho shoots to score during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby (70) defends while Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho shoots to score during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, Dec. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Sebastian Aho sat slumped in his locker, like several of his teammates, including Justin Williams immediately to his right. His hat, tipped low, covered his eyes.

“Any reason you couldn’t have gone in the shootout?” Aho was asked.

He looked up, slowly. Then he shook his head, even more slowly.

There were a million frustrations large and small in the Carolina Hurricanes’ 6-5 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals on Friday, from the three-goal lead the Hurricanes managed to lose in less than six minutes to Alex Ovechkin’s hat trick to the blatant uncalled penalty that Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour later declared the turning point in the game.

The one that’s going to stick with everyone is watching six rounds of a shootout and not seeing Aho – who already had a breakaway goal on a two-goal, four-point night – or the better-every-day Andrei Svechnikov get a chance.

And just look at the list of players who did: Janne Kuokkanen, Jaccob Slavin, Phil Di Giuseppe, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Williams, Brock McGinn. Only Hamilton scored.

Meanwhile, the Caps ran out T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin off the hop – instead of, say, Dmitrij Jaskin, Matt Niskanen and Travis Boyd.

“We do that drill in practice every day,” Brind’Amour said. “Same guys kind of generally are our better guys. We keep putting them out there because they score in practice. That’s all it was. … To be honest, there’s not a lot of thought into it. Went with the flow on that one.”

Brind’Amour’s honesty is commendable, as is his commitment to what he sees in practice, but the six players Brind’Amour picked for the shootout have scored a combined 16 goals this season. Aho alone has 11 after Friday.

Even if Brind’Amour has three guys picked in advance because of analytics or practice results or eating habits or whatever, by the time it gets to Round 5 or 6, he might want to let his best player or his star rookie have a crack at it. A team that isn’t exactly blessed with natural goal-scorers probably shouldn’t leave the two it actually has on the bench. Go with that flow.

Live and die with your fastball. You’ll sleep better.

Still, relitigating the selections for what is basically a slam-dunk contest anyway overlooks the fact that the Hurricanes led 4-1 at the midway point and were actually getting reasonably solid goaltending from Scott Darling in an unexpected cameo and never should have been in overtime in the first place.

“We certainly didn’t want the storyline of ‘Canes played hard but fell a bit short to the Stanley Cup champs,’ ” Williams said. “That’s not the storyline we wanted. We wanted ‘Canes persevere and get a big two points.’ That was the line we were looking for. Listen, I score in the shootout there, and we’re talking very differently right now, right? That’s the way it is.”

As much as the Hurricanes could have used a big save from Darling, and the eventual lack of one turned out to be fatal, the goals against him were hardly inexcusable, especially by his standards. He was too deep on Ovechkin’s first and third, but the Hurricanes also left Ovechkin alone in his preferred left-circle tee box for both. Tom Wilson was left unbothered to pick a rebound from between Darling’s legs and tuck it home, and the Capitals’ fourth took a double deflection.

But the game hinged on the Capitals’ third, Ovechkin’s second. As Ovechkin hovered at the left point, Jonas Siegenthaler plowed through Hamilton, clearing a lane to the net for Ovechkin, a clear and textbook interference penalty that was somehow inexcusably ignored by referees Chris Rooney and Brian Pochmara. Brind’Amour went berserk on the bench, and rightfully so.

Things changed quickly. Halfway through the game, settling for overtime would have been utterly deflating. By the time Williams knocked down a Braden Holtby clearing attempt behind the net and tapped the puck into the open goal to tie the score 5-5, the guaranteed point was practically invigorating.

At least until the shootout, when the crowd became more agitated with each passing selection as Aho and Svechnikov watched along with it as another point slipped away in infuriating fashion. They all add up, in the end.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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