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About Last Night: Up In Smoke

We always knew it was a long shot, but the playoff dream finally seems all but dead after Carolina’s first regulation loss in 14 games.

Where have I seen this before...?
Jamie Kellner

I’d be lying if I said I knew this would happen, that the Carolina Hurricanes would drop the biggest game of the year to a team that they should statistically have little trouble with, but it sure felt like this was a long time coming.

There weren’t many positives from last night, but there was plenty to talk about.

Where’d the Offense Go?

Probably the easiest point to pick out in a shutout loss is the lack of scoring. And while the Canes aren’t known as a high-octane offensive juggernaut, they have been able to find the net rather consistently lately. Until last night, that is.

They weren’t facing a Carey Price or a Henrik Lundqvist, but rather Kari Lehtonen. “Cam Ward: Dallas Edition,” if you will. A player who certainly has his moments, deserves to be in the NHL, but struggles mightily with the concept of consistency. So it should have been a prime opportunity to keep things rolling, or so it seemed.

Of course, one can only rely on Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, and Sebastian Aho to carry the team for so long before someone else has to step up (more on that below). And sure, they tried—Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slavin created several shooting lanes for themselves, but often put the shots high or directly into Lehtonen’s chest with no traffic.

The biggest issue, though, was their decision-making. In the first period alone, Skinner and Teuvo Teravainen each had odd-man rushes, with the former having a 3-on-1 to his advantage. Neither managed a shot, or even a completed pass. And in the second period, the Canes continued forcing their passes to unsuspecting teammates, leading to turnovers and missed opportunities. The third period saw more of the same.

It wasn’t like they completely shut down, but the Hurricanes looked nervous. They looked unsure of themselves in all three zones, and credit the Dallas Stars for making them uncomfortable. We haven’t seen this team lack confidence the way they did last night, and it showed that they still have a bit of growing to do before they can truly find consistency.

What’s Eating Victor Rask?

One player that has been way too quiet for his skill level is Victor Rask. The Hurricanes’ potential 1C has been very quiet for much of the year, though he is just seven points short of 50. Much of his production came during his hot start with Skinner and Lee Stempniak at the outset of the season.

But lately, he’s been a shell of himself. He’s got just two points (assists) in his last eight games, and during the Canes historic point streak, he didn’t even crack the top-10 in points:

Disclaimer: that’s a very small sample size, but also a very telling one. The guys leading the way are the usual suspects until you hit #10 and realize that Derek Ryan outperformed Rask over the span of 13 games. Ryan is a good hockey player, and deserves his role with the big club. But Rask is supposed to be a top-six forward without a doubt.

Rask is a highly skilled player in a rough patch, but even through it all, he’s played at least 17 minutes in four of his last five games. Clearly, Bill Peters still has faith in the young Swede, but his production needs to pick up to warrant the kind of ice time he’s seeing.

The flip side of this is the acknowledgement that two of the top three on that list (53 and 16) were supposedly trade-able over the past year or two, and have now led the team into relevance in April. So patience is key, as always.

For all of Rask’s struggles this season, it’s important to remember that this is just his third full season in the NHL. He’s only 24. Maybe the 1C role is too much for him (right now), so it’s on management to rectify that situation accordingly. But being patient with him will continue to be the smart decision.

One of the hardest things to do as a passionate fan is to take a step back and look at things from a different angle. For example, much of the feeling in PNC Arena as the final buzzer sounded was bitter disappointment and frustration. But how many actually saw the Hurricanes in the playoff race in April at the start of the season? How about at the end of February/beginning of March?

Perspective can change your whole outlook on things, and this team is still up-and-coming. The fact that they were even in the conversation is great news for their development curve, and with several players like Aleksi Saarela, Julien Gauthier, Jake Bean, Haydn Fleury, Warren Foegele, Spencer Smallman, etc. still awaiting their first taste of NHL hockey, it’s not long before playoffs are the true expectation.

And if you want proof in numbers, take another look at Kyle’s post from March 31st. The youngest team in the League is just getting started. Their chance for redemption comes today at 5 p.m. with a stiff test in Pittsburgh.