Facing a four-day break that will be a welcome sight to the game-weary Carolina Hurricanes, the team left themselves with some work to do before Friday night.
The Canes' three game winning streak came to an end on Sunday in front of 9,081 at PNC Arena at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who took a 4-3 decision that was not nearly as close as the score would indicate.
"I felt like we had some jump and legs, but we didn't execute particularly well," said Canes captain Eric Staal. "We could have been better in a few different areas. It wasn't enough tonight."
Both teams started slowly, the Lightning feeling the effects of having played the night before in Tampa against the Bruins and the Canes playing their third game in four nights. Despite a shot disadvantage, the Canes netted the only goal of the first period, the captain scoring a backhander from the side of the net that caught Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy by surprise.
The Lightning found their legs in the second period, starting early with a Ryan Callahan goal less than a minute in on a defensive breakdown by the otherwise impressive pairing of John-Michael Liles and Brett Pesce. Liles later left the ice during a penalty kill with 4:25 to go in the second after a Callahan shot rode up Liles' stick and caught the defenseman in the face. Liles missed the rest of the period but returned for the start of the third.
Down two defensemen with Liles in the treatment room and Noah Hanifin in the penalty box for high-sticking, the Lightning took advantage with a go-ahead goal at 18:54 when Steven Stamkos fired a slap shot from the blue line past Cam Ward.
Third-period goals by J.T. Brown, whose father Ted once played football for N.C. State across the street at Carter-Finley Stadium, and Tyler Johnson gave the Lightning a 4-1 lead that looked relatively safe. With 4:35 to go, though, the Canes struck courtesy of a Kris Versteeg breakaway off a lead pass from Victor Rask to pull it to within two. Jordan Staal added a meaningless goal with :00.1 second remaining to give the final scoreline, but the Canes played the final 2:30 with Ward on the bench for the sixth attacker.
The young Canes will have some quality time to study film with a four-day break before the team's next game, Friday against the Dallas Stars. "There's going to be some great teachable moments out of this game for sure," said Canes coach Bill Peters. "We made it hard on ourselves because of the decisions we made."
"They scored some timely goals," said Versteeg, who figured in each of the three Carolina goals. "They were a desperate team. Tonight they brought it. When you take that many penalties against a team like that, it will be tough to win."
The announced attendance of 9,081 was the lowest for a Canes home game since a game against the Blackhawks on January 30, 2010 that saw 6,896 brave a snowstorm that dropped five inches of snow on the capital city. Excluding the weather, the last time the Canes drew fewer than Sunday's game was a game that drew 8,810 against the Senators on January 21, 2003.
With four days off, Peters says that special teams will be the main focus of the extended practice schedule. "We're going to spend some good, quality time on [the power play] and we're going to have to make some personnel changes," he said. "But we have to touch up on everything," including a focus on off-ice conditioning in the weight room, Peters continued.
And not everything will be physical over the next few days. The mental aspect of the Canes' game needs attention too, says Peters. "I would probably say our decision making wasn't good enough."
Notes: Vasilevskiy earned the win in his first start of the season, returning from a blood clot that required surgery in the offseason. ... Jordan Staal's goal at the horn came on his sixth shot of the night, the most by a player on either team. Ryan Murphy was the only other Hurricanes player with more than three shots. ... Rask also had a three-point night, earning assists on each of Carolina's goals.