It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs when, given the track record of teams coming off their bye week so far this season, a team fails to meet even those meager expectations, but that's where we are today after the Carolina Hurricanes were thoroughly outplayed on home ice by the last-place Colorado Avalanche last night at PNC Arena. There are a million entry points to talk about last night's game, so let's get to it.
Victor Rask and Lee Stempniak need to pay a visit to the press box
Remember a month ago when Noah Hanifin and Teuvo Teravainen were benched for a game at the Blue Jackets because of their poor play the night before in a 7-1 loss to the Penguins? That was one game. We've now seen a month of poor play from Rask and Stempniak, and what's been their consequence? Sixteen minutes of ice time a night.
Rask, in particular, has been invisible for two months. He has zero points in eleven straight games. He's been moved all over the lineup in an attempt to get him going, and the only effect it has is to drag down whatever linemates he has on any given night.
Is he nursing an injury? Is he struggling because of the weight of his new contract? Who knows, but he is doing nothing to contribute to the Hurricanes’ success, and now at crunch time teams are basically ignoring him and daring Jordan Staal and, to a lesser extent, Teravainen to beat their best players. The contract he signed in the offseason may yet turn out to be a bargain, but right now it's a millstone. Lucas Wallmark is lurking in Charlotte with 16 goals this season, eight of which have been scored since January 1; would it kill the Canes to call him up and bench Rask for a game or two to get a point across?
Which brings us to Stempniak, and while it may seem odd to call him out after he assisted on the Canes’ only goal of the night, the fact is that one selfish play could well have cost the Canes a win. Stempniak took the puck away from Tyson Barrie just inside the blue line, but then two seconds later he karate-chopped Barrie’s stick just as Jeff Skinner took the puck in alone on Calvin Pickard.
The penalty wiped a goal off the board, and given the way Cam Ward was playing, may well have been all that stood between the Canes and a regulation win. I realize that Stempniak wasn't signed to be a difference maker, rather a complementary scorer, but plays like that are emblematic of how Stempniak’s year has gone so far. Would anyone miss Stempniak if he were shipped out at the trade deadline? Is he really that much more of an upgrade on Ty Rattie?
Update: And speaking of Rattie, he joins the likes of Martin Frk and Jakub Nakladal in being little more of a footnote in Hurricanes history. He has been placed on waivers, and is likely to be re-claimed by the Blues tomorrow, who can send him to the AHL if no other team claims him. Phil Di Giuseppe will be called up to replace Rattie on the roster and will be in the lineup tomorrow against Toronto.
Peters’ reaction: a shrug emoji
Last night was the first time I can remember Bill Peters really throwing his hands up and firing a shot across the bow of his boss, Ron Francis. A quote from the postgame press conference was at once instructive and kindly terrifying:
What are you going to change, right? Eventually those guys who aren’t getting it done or aren’t generating as much as they should need to step up too. That would be the best solution to the problem we have with the lack of offense.
For one thing, I just offered a thing or two that is overdue to change. But for Peters to basically throw up his hands and say “oh well guys, we knew it was coming, and we can't make any changes to fix it” is rather terrifying when the Hurricanes desperately need to go on a run here, and fast.
It was a side I've never seen from Peters, and I'm not sure what to make of it. Could he be throwing down the gauntlet to Francis and telling him he's done as much as he can with the team he's been given? Perhaps, but it was so out of character for him that I'm not willing to go all in on that interpretation yet. Keep an eye on this, though. It might be nothing more than an annoyance that his team laid an entirely predictable egg, but the Canes really will be in deep trouble if there's a crack in the foundation between the coach and GM.
Ward rides to the rescue
On a night when the eighteen skaters in front of him did their collective best to saddle him with an undeserved loss, Cam Ward acquitted himself quite well. If you missed this save on Gabriel Landeskog, watch it again - and even if you saw it live, it's worth another look.
Ward is at his best when he anticipates plays and gets into position fluidly and with purpose. This play shows it off perfectly. Stempniak, despite what I said a couple of paragraphs ago, did Ward a gigantic favor by tying up the stick of Nathan MacKinnon just enough to take some mustard off his pass to Landeskog. That allowed Ward to sweep across the crease and get in position a split second before the Avalanche captain would have had an easy tap-in.
Ward going on another extended run similar to his performance in November and early December would be just what the doctor ordered, but he can't do it alone. The Canes owe it to him to reward performances like last night with a win. Ward can be streaky, so riding the crest of a hot streak is the way the Canes will get back into the playoff race. Otherwise, they'll simply waste his solid play and be left wondering what might have been.
Things don't get any easier for the Canes. The Maple Leafs come to town on Sunday, a far more offensively-gifted team than what we saw last night, and the Canes can't rely on Ward to bail them out again and steal a point. There should be changes on the way. Whether that's a personnel move or a change in philosophy, it's up to Peters to figure out, but more performances like last night and Francis’ decision on what to do approaching March 1 will be made much less difficult.