Coming off an important 1-0 win over No. 8 seed Buffalo, the Carolina Hurricanes needed to win Wednesday to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Instead, Toronto goalie James Reimer baffled the Canes for the second straight time, leading the Maple Leafs to a 3-1 victory at the RBC Center. Here are five observations from Wednesday's loss.
1. There's no denying that Eric Staal is a franchise player. He's also proven time and again that he is able to come through in clutch situations. There's also no doubt that Carolina sorely misses their captain's scoring right now. At the most crucial time in the season, Staal has gone cold. It's not lack of effort — he had nine shots against Toronto — but on a night when the opposing captain, Dion Phaneuf, led the way for Toronto with two goals and an assist, it's hard not to notice that Staal is on a five-game streak without a goal and has just one assist over that span. In those five games, Staal has logged 121:12 of ice time (more than 24 minutes a night) and it showed in the final two periods Wednesday.
Staal should be relied on, but the workload that's been dumped on him and the total lack of secondary scoring help has No. 12 back in "I need to do it all by myself" mode. The blame for his struggles belongs in all those areas. But in the end, when you wear the C you are expected to lead. Staal has definitely tried, but right now trying hasn't been enough.
3. Carolina has not scored three goals in regulation since a 4-1 over the Penguins Feb. 25. Before that, it was a 4-2 win over the Islanders — who visit the RBC Center Friday — Jan. 26. So people can blame Cam Ward until the cows come home — and, frankly, none of the goals he allowed Wednesday were soft — but Carolina's inability to score is simply crippling the team's playoff chances. As mentioned earlier, Staal is in a rut. But what about the other guys who were supposed to be impact players this season? Jussi Jokinen has just 16 goals this season, and only nine at even strength compared to 20 in 2009-10. And Joni Pitkanen has dropped from 46 points last season to 29 so far this year. With Erik Cole having a bounce-back season and Jeff Skinner contributing far more than anyone expected last summer when he was drafted, the Hurricanes had a golden opportunity to be a surprise this season. Instead, players that were supposed to be key cogs have faltered.
4. A split wasn't what Carolina envisioned after they knocked off the Sabres on the front end of the back-to-back with Buffalo and Toronto. Carolina's next two games are certainly winnable — both at home, against the Islanders Friday and Senators Tuesday — but the road gets tougher for the final nine games. Other than traveling to Long Island to close out their series with the Isles April 2, the Canes will face teams that are either in the playoffs or still battling for a spot. Three of those will be against division foe Tampa Bay, plus another matchup with Buffalo and a visit from cross-conference rival Detroit. Montreal, Washington and Atlanta all loom as well. So it will be difficult to make a huge run against stiff competition, making the games against the next opponents — both inferior in talent and lacking desperation — must-wins.
5. It felt as if the RBC Center had never been as quiet for a Hurricanes game as it was late in Wednesday's loss. Small patches of Maple Leafs fans were able to get chants going that were sustained until some Carolina fans snuffed them out. On a night when many of the players looked defeated and empty on the morale scale, it's safe to say the fans felt the same way. Many headed for the exits with more than three minutes left and Carolina down two goals — a big hill to climb, but surely not impossible — and even the postgame chatter in the parking lot was much quieter than your average loss. When things go bad, many question if the coach has lost the room. After last night, you have to wonder if the team has lost the fans for the balance of the season.