Fragile Canes drop seventh straight home game



PNC ARENA—In the space of 31 seconds Saturday night, the Carolina Hurricanes' season officially ended.

Eric Staal has had a great season. His team, however, has not.
Left so wide open he could have paused to write a journal entry about it before he shot the puck, Derek Stepan beat Dan Ellis from the slot on an early second-period New York Rangers power play. Then, on the next shift, Ellis dallied behind his net and was pickpocketed almost apologetically by Rick Nash, who fed Ryan Callahan in front for an open-goal tap-in.

Just like that, a competitive game between two teams fighting for a playoff berth became a laugher. On their way to an almost casual 4-1 win, the Rangers moved to seventh in the Eastern Conference. And on a night when Winnipeg and Washington both won to put more distance between themselves and Carolina, the Canes dropped their franchise record-tying seventh straight home game.

Mathematically, the playoffs are still possible for Carolina. But ostensibly, after a nightmarish March and first week of April, this season is now in the books, and it's time to start taking stock of a team that once again teased fans with promise but came up lacking talent, fight and focus in the moments it needed them most.

Was it only March 14 that the Canes were in first place? Fresh off a 4-0 shutout of the Capitals in Washington, Carolina had their mojo going after jumping out to a 2-0 lead over the Caps at home. But Washington summoned something that night to win 3-2 on a late goal by Mike Ribeiro.

Carolina has summoned nothing since then, going 1-10-1. Forget the division title; how about a lottery pick?

The swoon really dates back to March 3, when a netmouth collision with Cam Ward knocked the goaltender out of the game with a severe MCL sprain in his left knee. The injury didn't require surgery, but Ward won't see the ice again until the fall.

Backups Dan Ellis and Justin Peters hung on for a week or so, but when defenseman Justin Faulk went down on Mar. 19 to a knee sprain of his own, the house of cards collapsed.

The Canes have given up fewer than four goals just once in the eight games since.

That seemingly brief free fall was enough to scuttle management's hopes at the April 3 trading deadline. If the Canes show some fight over the last two weeks of March and pick up a few scrappy points, maybe general manager Jim Rutherford adds a rental player to the lineup to try to push this team to their first playoff berth since 2009.

Nope. The hopelessness on the faces of the players spread to the offices upstairs. Rutherford picked up an interchangeable part in defender Marc-Andre Bergeron from Tampa and cleared salary for next season by shipping Jussi Jokinen to Pittsburgh.

The remaining games on the schedule become job auditions now. We know what the top half of the lineup will look like in the fall, but where will the secondary scoring come from? Will the Canes have enough depth to weather injuries to guys like Ward and Joni Pitkanen, who seem to end up on the IR each season now? Will coach Kirk Muller temper his relentless positivity with some growl and bark?

Even a losing team is interesting to watch. But only if they change things. In Raleigh, hopefully, change is on the way.

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