The Carolina Hurricanes played what could be considered a good game in St. Paul last night, but their failure to capitalize when they had their chances and a few untimely mistakes ended up costing them yet another victory as they lost to the Minnesota Wild by a score of 3-2.
As Ron Francis eloquently and accurately stated between the 2nd and 3rd periods, "they were playing hard, but they were not playing smart".
It's not the first time this season that ineffective special team play came back to bite this team. Fans have seen it before. Not only did they fail to score on the powerplay, they could not score during a full two minute 5-on-3. They allowed a shorthanded goal while they had a man advantage and their penalty killers were unable to kill the only powerplay attempt that the Wild had all night long as Marian Gaborik scored just 18 seconds into it.
The good news is that the Hurricanes scored the first goal of the contest. After a somewhat sluggish start, the action picked up and Carolina started to put on some pressure in the Wild zone. With a little over a minute left in the opening period, Scott Walker sent the puck in toward the crease and Rod Brind'Amour easily tipped it into the net. It was the first goal for the captain since mid November.
The 2nd period was the killer, even though it started out well. Joni Pitkanen skated the puck deep in the zone and found Ray Whitney cutting toward him. Whitney put the puck on net and it was inadvertently tipped in by the Wild defenseman. Scott Walker was creating havoc in the crease and should get some credit as well.
After that, the period belonged to Minnesota. Marian Gaborik got things started as he skated with purpose into the Canes zone. He found Mikko Koivu who sent a nice shot on net, it went off Cal Clutterbuck who was parked in the crease, and the Wild were on the board.
About four minutes later, Scott Walker was called for the only Carolina penalty of the night, but it took all of 18 seconds for the Wild to take advantage. Koivu returned the earlier favor and found Gaborik at the side of the net. Michael Leighton strayed a bit too soon leaving the short side wide open as the sniper easily tied the score.
The Hurricanes went on their second powerplay in the contest with about three minutes left in the period, but they mis-handled the puck and the Wild came down the ice with a 2-on-1 advantage. Leighton made the initial save on Eric Belanger, but directed the rebound perfectly out to Stephane Veilleux who buried it.
The third period was an exercise in futility as try as they might, the Canes could not get the puck past goalie Niklas Backstrom. Fairly early in the period, they initially had a four minute powerplay when Tim Gleason was bloodied with a high stick. But the extended man advantage eventually turned into a two minute, two man advantage as another Wild was called for tripping Ray Whitney.
The 5-on-3 looked pretty good as the puck movement was decent and the effort was there, but they never really came close to scoring. The Wild defense collapsed and the Canes could not get anything close in. They bombed away from the outside, but the shots were either over the net or into Backstrom's pads. To the goalie's credit, there were no juicy rebounds available during the sequence, he was able to steer them to the corners.
Carolina now has lost two of their last three, all on the road. They will face the Thrashers next in Atlanta on Friday night, a team they have yet to beat this season.
The biggest news of the night was Maurice's decision to play Michael Leighton instead of Cam Ward. "Wardo" had been red hot since coming back from his injury, so the game time decision had nothing to do with his play. One hypothesis is that he may not be 100% and they rested him as a precaution. These are all huge games though. If Ward is able to play, he should play, especially with two nights rest between games. It would be perfectly understandable to rest him with a back-to-back situation.
Where was Joni Pitkanen during the 5-on-3? Maybe he was out there at some point in time and I didn't notice him.
Justin Williams almost lost the puck again at the blueline which would have resulted in a breakaway for Gaborik. That incident will surely be addressed during the next meeting with the coaches. Paul Maurice was not very happy the last time Williams did that during the Panthers game.
The Canes outshot the Wild 37-23, but one reason the Wild had fewer shots is that the Hurricanes blocked 17, while the home team blocked 9. Joni Pitkanen led the team with three blocked shots.
Rod Brind'Amour had a good night with a goal and an assist, but still could not manage a "plus". Walker and Whitney also had good games.
Matt Cullen has been snake-bitten lately and has not scored a goal in the month of December. Patrick Eaves remains scoreless for the season, although came close again last night.
The Canes need to learn how to play with a lead. While the team is jumping out to much better starts under Maurice, they are not finishing as well as they need to.
Washington and Florida both won last night which now leaves the Canes eight points behind the division leaders and just one point ahead of the Panthers. Carolina is in 9th place in the conference standings.