The Carolina Hurricanes rallied from a 3-1, third-period deficit to tie the Panthers and force overtime before losing in the extra session on a Bryan Allen slapshot. The loss broke Carolina's three-game winning streak, but the team still has seven points in its last four games with upcoming road games at the Rangers and Florida this week. Here are five observations from last night's loss.
1. For years, the Southeast Division has held the moniker of "Southleast," with the division boasting one and maybe two teams worthy of mention come playoff time. Much has been made this year about how deep the Southeast is this season, with Tampa Bay and Atlanta pushing the Capitals for the division title, and Carolina hanging around the playoff race despite a budget rollback and much younger team. But how about the Panthers? No one expected the team that shipped out first-liner Nathan Horton to have a winning record (18-17-2) almost halfway through the season, but the team has been led by Tomas Vokoun's goaltending and a scoring-by-committee offense that has the Panthers plus-seven in scoring differential. One person who hasn't gotten the memo about the overachieving Panthers is News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock.
DeCock's column took the position that losing to Florida on home ice is akin to dropping an RBC Center date with the Devils, Islanders or Oilers (the Canes are 3-0 against the trio, the NHL's bottom three team's this season). It's not. Was Carolina's effort the equivalent of the ones they put forth vs. New Jersey or Ottawa? No, at least not until later in the game. But discounting Florida — even with backup Scott Clemmesen in net instead of Vokoun — as DeCock did suggests Carolina is leaps and bounds better than Florida. Coach Peter DeBoer's team, like the Hurricanes, has played more games on the road (21) than at home (16), yet still can stake a claim to being in the playoff hunt. Much like the Southeast no longer merits the "least" title, this year's incarnation of the Panthers deserves better from DeCock.
2. GM Jim Rutherford and coach Paul Maurice have some big decisions to make once Jussi Jokinen and Jiri Tlusty are ready to return to the lineup. Call-ups Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe have combined for five goals over the past three games, seizing the opportunity given to them due to injuries among the forward lines. Boychuk broke through once he was elevated to the team's top nine, scoring twice against Ottawa and then rallying Carolina with his tally Monday vs. the Panthers. Dalpe received some extra ice time against Florida after scoring for the second straight game, something he has done while playing less than 10 minutes in both outings since his promotion. Both look ready for full-time NHL roles, but Carolina will need to make room for them ... somehow.
3. Speaking of filling in, Carolina has looked good on defense without minute-muncher Joni Pitkanen in the lineup, with Jamie McBain, Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison absorbing the majority of the extra ice time. McBain has averaged more than 3:30 of power play time in the past three games (compared to 2:33 on the season), while Gleason has seen power play time (nearly two minutes a game) and Harrison has averaged more than 21 minutes a night (14:26 on the year). It raises the question of what do about Pitkanen's impending unrestricted free agency and also the return the team could get if it decided to deal the 27-year-old Finn. Gleason, McBain and Joe Corvo have all proven they can handle being in the top two pairings, while Harrison's play this season has been much better than most people's expectations. With Brett Carson and Bryan Rodney available, and Bobby Sanguinetti — who is out for this season — in the system, losing Pitkanen and possibly Ian While (also a UFA) doesn't seem crippling, especially if a young blueliner came back to Carolina in a deal involving one or both.
4. The Canes outhit the Panthers 46-19 in the game, led by, no surprise, Tuomo Ruutu with eight. But Carolina had five others with at least four hits: Patrick Dwyer (six), Gleason (five), Boychuk (five), Eric Staal (four) and Ryan Carter (four). There's no denying Maurice has amped up the team's forechecking efforts, a fact illustrated in the number of hits from the Hurricanes’ forwards, and it's led to more balanced scoring.
5. It can't be said enough: the NHL needs to find a way to televise every game that is played. Kudos to the Hurricanes for providing the arena feed to Center Ice, but it was only (legally) available to those in Canada due to the NHL's TV deal with Versus that restricts Monday broadcasting. With the league coming off another U.S. ratings win with this year's Winter Classic, it's embarrassing that there are still games diehard fans can't see because of the Versus contract.