The Carolina Hurricanes got a taste Thursday of what it will take to compete with the NHL's elite down the stretch, and while the Canes played with the Flyers for most of the night, they came away empty-handed in a 2-1 loss. Here are five observations from Thursday's game.
1. Carolina did a great job in keeping the league's No. 2 5-on-5 team off the scoreboard on even terms. The Flyers score 1.36 goals per one goal their opponents score at even strength (second to only Boston, who checks in at 1.55:1), but the Canes — who went with Brett Carson in place of injured Joni Pitkanen — managed to keep Philadelphia to the outside despite being pinned in their own end on several occasions throughout the night. Cam Ward faced just 17 shots at even strength, stopping them all, and made keys saves when needed.
2. Unfortunately, the team wasn't as effective on special teams. Philly potted both their goals with the man advantage despite registering just six shots in six power play opportunities. The first goal of the game was just 18 seconds into the third period as Jeff Carter's shot hit Ward's glove, only to pop in the air and into the net for a 1-0 lead. Ward was clearly disappointed in not making the stop. The second goal saw Danny Briere roof the puck past Ward to give Philadelphia a two-goal cushion with less than nine minutes left. Carolina also struggled with the man advantage, failing to convert on six chances and managing just five shots on Flyers goalie Brian Boucher in more than eight minutes of power play time.
3. Despite getting just six and a half minutes of ice time, fourth line center Ryan Carter had arguably his best game since coming to Carolina in November. He nearly got his first goal as a Hurricane when he beat Boucher on the stick side, only to have his shot ring off the post. Since his penalty killing role has been limited of late (just 48 seconds Thursday), Carter and the rest of the fourth line need to make an impact at even strength. Teamed with Troy Bodie and Zach Boychuk, Carter definitely did that against the Flyers.
4. Tuomo Ruutu's third period tally snapped an 11-game streak where he was held without a goal. Hopefully that's a good sign for Carolina, because his line has struggled at even strength over that stretch. Linemate Jeff Skinner scored five times in that 11-game span, but just twice at even strength. Chad LaRose had three goals in the first four games of Ruutu's drought, but didn't register a point since until he assisted on the team's lone goal Thursday. Ruutu now has 42 points through 55 games, so he's on pace for a career high 62 points. That would be the most by a Carolina center not named Staal or Brind'Amour since Ron Francis had 77 in 2001-02.
5. Outside of an unfortunate high sticking penalty, Brett Carson played well in the 11:52 of ice time he saw, including 2:22 of shorthanded time. While he's no replacement for Pitkanen, it makes you consider the mindset of GM Jim Rutherford following the game. The Canes certainly didn't pack much of an offensive wallop without No. 25 Thursday, but that may be due as much to Philadelphia's play as Pitkanen's absence. Defensively, the team certainly didn't miss a beat and had fewer breakdowns than recent games.
With TSN analyst Darren Dreger floating Pitkanen's name (along with other Carolina d-men) in trade rumors, you have to wonder if where there's smoke, there's fire. As Dreger mentions, Carolina would likely need a defenseman (if it's Detroit, is that Brad Stuart? Jonathan Ericsson?) plus more back, but Carolina is proving it can compete without Pitkanen. The Hurricanes are now 4-2-2 with the Finnish defenseman out of the lineup, plus 1-0-1 in game when he left early due to injury. He is definitely a catalyst for the team — he's been on the ice for 68 of Carolina's goals, second only to Eric Staal's 81 — but Joe Corvo has registered more power play points, and Jamie McBain continues to gain confidence. If Rutherford is unsure of re-signing Pitkanen this offseason and the return is good enough, he shouldn't be faulted for exploring his trade options.