The Atlanta Thrashers continued their slide, but the Carolina Hurricanes — who sit one point behind their division foe for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race — squandered another opportunity to leap frog into a postseason spot by coming up flat in Toronto, falling 3-0 to the Maple Leafs. Here are five observations from the shutout loss.
1. Here at Canes Country, the debate over the future of Joni Pitkanen continues to be debated. Should Carolina re-sign their No. 1 defenseman after his current contract expires? Should GM Jim Rutherford deal him at the trade deadine, perhaps for a more defensive-minded blueliner, if he doesn't intend to retain him going forward? It's a difficult situation because when he's on, Pitkanen can dominate a game. Not only is he a spectacular skater with excellent vision, but he can eat up minutes in every situation. With all that "here's what he does well" praise out of the way, his turnover that led to Darryl Boyce's second period goal is the type of play that befuddles Hurricanes' followers and surely frustrates the front office and coaching staff. Mistakes happen, but lazy plays that end up in your own net aren't soon forgotten. And Pitkanen is guilty of them much more often that he should be.2. The Leafs got great work from their entire team in slowing the Canes, but credit still goes to rookie James Reimer for getting his first career shutout. But my favorite part of the night was Reimer taking a hooking call on Eric Staal behind the Toronto net. It's not a call you see often — some quick research points to Boston's Tuukka Rask being the last goalie to get called for it when he hooked Minnesota's Andrew Ebbett on Nov. 29, 2009 — but when you think of it, it was a brilliant penalty for Reimer to take. Staal had a wide-open wraparound opportunity, and Reimer's hook slowed him enough to prevent a goal. It's never ideal to put your team on a 5-on-3, but in the end the Leafs' ability to kill it off was the swing moment in the game.
3. Cam Ward was not at fault for Thursday's loss, but it is time to mention that Ward's numbers have dropped off since his fantastic December. Ward went 6-3-1 in December with a .941 save percentage and 2.15 goals-against average. But his January stats were pedestrian (6-4-2, .897, 3.19), and he's now 0-2 in February with a .919 save percentage and 3.03 goals-against average. In this week's losses to Boston and Toronto, Ward has played well enough to win, but has been out-dueled by the opposition's netminder and hung out to dry by his teammates. More than anything, this illustrates how much a goalie's numbers are tied to how the team in front of him is playing. Ward has certainly stole some wins along the way, but he needs the Hurricanes to play as a team if they're going to reach the playoffs.
4. On this same note, Carolina is again caught in an identity crisis. Are they a free-wheeling, forechecking team that is OK with winning 5-3 and 6-4 games, or are they a defense-first squad that relies on special teams and the occasional offensive opportunity to eek out wins? If you look at the Hurricanes' wins this season, it's fair to say that opening things up benefits Carolina more than locking things down. The Hurricanes have won just twice in regulation this year when scoring less than four goals (3-0 shutout at Boston Nov. 26, 3-2 win vs. Florida Nov. 6), so the idea of winning 2-1 or 3-2 should be far from Carolina's mind.
5. I think the way the Leafs and Canes handled the lingering animosity surrounding Tim Gleason's knockout punch of Nikolai Kulemin the last time the team's met was about the best-case result when it comes to pending retribution. Gleason accepted Jay Rosehill's invitation to fight in the first period, and it was an evenly matched bout that should put an end to any debate about Gleason's intentions on Jan. 24.