Hurricanes’ season reaching critical point

RALEIGH, N.C. — It might be a bit overdramatic to some to suggest this five-day stretch that bookends games with the Winnipeg Jets could shape the rest of the Carolina Hurricanes’ season. But when looking at the standings and considering the shortened 48-game schedule, it’s hard to see it otherwise.

The stretch began with Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss, extending the Hurricanes’ losing skid to six games. In the process, the Jets increased their Southeast Division lead to six points over the ’Canes, a mark that could grow even greater by Saturday night when Carolina heads to the freezing cold of Manitoba to take on the division leaders again. After that, the teams meet just once more, April 18 in Winnipeg. If the Hurricanes don’t quickly change the course of their season, which includes a shocking 3-9 mark against divisional foes, that game may not mean a whole lot as far as the division title goes — and perhaps the playoff picture in general. 

Carolina is two spots from holding the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference with 32 points, one point ahead of division rival Washington and two up on Buffalo.

The Hurricanes hadn’t played since last Thursday, so the break was supposed to do the team some good. It didn’t, much to coach Kirk Muller’s dismay.

“Quite honestly, very disappointed,” Muller said about his team’s effort Tuesday. “I thought the rest, a couple of days off, refocus we’d be ready to go here tonight. You know what, no excuses. Not to take anything away from Winnipeg, that wasn’t our best game and wasn’t our best performance by some individuals.” 

Muller didn’t specify anyone by name, but he did call out the team’s more established players en masse, suggesting they need to do more for the team to get back its winning groove. That undoubtedly includes captain Eric Staal, who has now failed to score in the teams’ last seven home games. In fact, the veteran may be seventh overall in the NHL with 35 points, but he had eight goals in Carolina’s first 11 games but just six in the last 20. He has two goals in the team’s last 10 games overall.

Carolina is 7-4 when Staal scores a goal, so the team needs him to light the lamp. But Muller sees this as being bigger than anyone or two players, as much as he needs Staal to get it going. 

“Player to player they have to look in the mirror and go, ‘What can I do better, what can I bring more,’” Muller said. “This is the playoffs right now. Forget about in a month or weeks or whatever, this is where you have to bring your ‘A’ game. Some guys did, but not enough.”

Carolina used the No. 3 goaltender (Justin Peters) in the organization again, as injuries have been an issue all season, especially on defense and in net. Regular starter and former all-star Cam Ward is out perhaps for the season, and second-line net-minder Dan Ellis is now out for a couple more weeks.

Perhaps this has affected the other players mentally to where they simply aren’t playing their games and are taking fewer chances, especially on defense. Muller said it doesn’t matter who’s in goal or what farm-hand has been called up. The players must play.

“When the puck drops, that’s when you have to perform,” the coach said. “Not in the morning skate, not yesterday. It’s all about playing. We didn’t have it tonight, and there’s no excuse for that.”

The Hurricanes must visit Toronto on Thursday before heading to Winnipeg, and that won’t be easy at all. The Maple Leafs are eight points ahead in the playoff standings. Staal says things have reached critical mass.

“We’re were getting down to the stretch here,” Staal said when asked if it’s hit critical mass yet. “It’s an important time, especially against divisional opponents. You want better, especially at home. It’s been frustrating, I’m sure, for our fans to see some losses that have accumulated here at home. But regardless we have to perform.”