by Kate Shefte
RBC CENTER/ RALEIGH—Last season, a shootout victory over San Jose started the Carolina Hurricanes on the path to turning their season around. This year, it was just more of the same.
After sleepwalking through the month of October, the 'Canes didn't ring in the new month with any sort of inspired showing and fell prey to the same sort of simple mistakes in losing to the visiting San Jose Sharks, 5-1. Reinserting Erik Cole (back from injury) and Tuomo Ruutu (who finished his three-game suspension yesterday) did nothing to help the ‘Canes, who dropped their ninth straight game. Carolina hasn’t gone in a skid quite this bad since it went winless in its final 11 games of the 2002-2003 season.
And to be fair, the ‘Canes haven’t just lost – they’ve face planted. After today’s matinee and yesterday’s 6-1 loss to Philadelphia on the road, the team has allowed 16 goals in three games, often in bunches, and hasn’t scored to make up the difference. The team’s stars seem to be in stunned silence and the veterans still think they’re on summer vacation. When Brandon Sutter and Jay Harrison seem to be the only ones awake and Scott Walker is giving you your best scoring chances, something is very, very wrong.
Meanwhile, San Jose added their weekly highlight reel contributions, displaying their considerable depth and ability to score from all over the depth chart and at any angle. Evgeni Nabokov was incredible, stopping 25 of 26 shots in acrobatic fashion. Well, maybe it wasn’t so acrobatic after all – it just looked very impressive compared to the flailing antics at the other end.
Ray Whitney, who was honored before the game for his 1000th NHL appearance in front of the team that drafted him and the team with which he will likely finish his career, had his chance with the first period half gone, slipping past two Sharks defenders and walking in alone. Though Nabokov easily turned his shot away, it got the crowd excited, at least temporarily.
After the game, Whitney was the first to bluntly address his current team’s shortcomings.
“Obviously, I want to get our asses out of this,” Whitney said. “We can’t afford to be running around like this much longer, with the standings the way they are.”
With a few seconds remaining in a power play to Brad Staubitz, Ray Whitney unleashed a bomb that Nabokov turned away. Pitkanen came in for the second attempt, which skittered past Nabokov, but from his back the San Jose goalie reached blindly behind him and swatted it away from the goal line, buying his defense enough time to get back. Pitkanen looked to be reasonably ticked after that one. The first period ended scoreless, which should have been a temporary relief to ‘Canes fans who were used to seeing the ‘Canes collapse early and often.
Call-up Brandon Sutter scored his second in two games – incidentally, the only two goals the ‘Cane scored in the back-to-backer – early in the second when he zoomed in on a two-man breakout with Tom K-Something. Keeping his head on a swivel, he got past the circle and surprised Nabokov.
That seemed to wake the opposing team up, as San Jose wasted no time in evening the score. Kent Huskins scored off a wraparound just over two minutes later when Cam Ward didn’t hug the post closely enough, negating Carolina’s briefest of leads.
1:22 later, Staubitz scored off a wraparound centering pass while flying through the air. As he was knocked askew by Andrew Alberts, Staubitz somehow corralled the puck and wristed it past Ward.
“How we react, one was or another, after a goal is scored has to be improved,” Whitney said.
The ‘Canes couldn’t clear the puck for a long stretch and seemed to be doing more harm than good in helping Ward locate it. With Pitkanen standing in the crease and everyone else standing around, Douglas Murray slipped a shot underneath Ward to make it 3-1.
Rod Brind’Amour, looking rather like cop that just got off duty as he didn’t bother to take off his weighted vest after a workout, said he’ll take any sort of win at this point.
“At this point, I’d rather play horribly and win that get a moral victory,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s really not anything clicking. We’ve done all the talking. At this point, every guy has got to figure out how to do something a little different to get it done.”
Mo seconded that analysis, saying fundamentals work will put the ‘Canes on the road to recover.
“You’ve got to start with two or three things that you can consistently do well every night, regardless of the score,” Maurice said. “We’ve got to get better goaltending, a stronger physical presence in our back end and we’ve got to get a more determined effort from our players up front.”
Eric Staal sustained the horribly unspecific “upper body injury” and didn’t return for the third. Maurice did not elaborate on his condition, but Staal could miss his first game since his rookie year Wednesday against Florida if it turns out to be serious. Staal has just five points on the season.
Erik Cole and Whitney went off on an unsuccessful 2-on-1 in the third period and San Jose turned it around and performed the feat, only they scored. Marc-Eduard Vlasic got the goal to bring the score to 4-1. What was left of the pitiful Sunday afternoon crowd filed out.
Mo called the team’s current streak “a different fire each day. [We’re] not putting it in or getting it out.”
“You can put people in different positions,” Maurice said. “You can make the passes shorter, try to support the puck better. But the one-on-one things, getting beaten in the corners, just standing there – it wasn’t a positional issue if you’re standing next to the guy who puts the puck in the net. We seem to be spending a lot of times on our butts in front of their net.”
During a penalty to Andrew Alberts, San Jose struck again off a tick-tac-toe play saw Patrick Marleau send the puck straight past Ward’s outstretched glove and knock the water bottle cleanly off the net.
Okay, done. Want something more uplifting before continuing on with your Sunday? Here’s an adorable picture of a kitten.
Maurice said the team will work on “mental focus” (is there any other kind?) before it travels to take on Florida – one of only two teams the ‘Canes beat in October – on Wednesday. They will return home to face the equally troubled Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.