The Carolina Hurricanes entered the final week of the NHL season clinging to a playoff spot on Sunday, and exited PPG Paints Arena with another loss as they struggled to mount any sort of fight against a Pittsburgh Penguins squad trying to keep their own faint hopes of a division title alive. The Canes fell 3-1, dropping them to the second wild card position, just one point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens with three games to play for each team.
Unfortunately, not much positive can be said about the performance on Sunday. Perhaps the only encouragement came from the lone goal which arrived once again on the beleaguered power play. Jaccob Slavin was able to wait patiently for a window and rip one past Murray in the third period to give the Canes a small glimmer of hope.
The goal marked the second consecutive game with at least one tally on the man advantage, and the Canes generally showed signs of better puck movement and aggressiveness on the power play. No doubt they will need some level of production from that unit of the final week of the season, so it is at least good to see that unit, which has been a disappointment a majority of the season, show signs of life.
Quite simply, the Canes were outworked on Sunday by the Penguins. Loose pucks and board battles were dominated by the Penguins, and it showed with a heavy tilt in the ice at various times. Obviously, the Pens were at a significant advantage, especially at this time of year, by not being on a back to back and having been at home following a Friday night defeat at the hands of the Predators, but with so much on the line it is still disappointing to see the Canes so consistently out-battled in what was clearly one of the season’s most important games.
The fourth line gets the first point on the board.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 31, 2019
Garrett Wilson with goal. Matt Cullen with the primary. And Adam Johnson with his first point in the NHL! pic.twitter.com/tL1n8Crf6I
While the Canes seemed a step slower on Sunday than the Pens, there was also some issues with puck management, especially in the neutral zone. After falling behind in the first on the jam opportunity in front, the Canes were less than two minutes away from escaping to the locker room down only a goal. However, a critical turnover entering the offensive zone by Justin Williams led to a two-on-one at the other end in which his former teammate Matt Cullen made no mistake in snapping what ended up being the game-winning marker past Curtis McElhinney to make it 2-0.
Fun fact: This is Cullen’s second goal in his last three games.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 31, 2019
A. Johnson and Dumoulin with the helpers. pic.twitter.com/XAeag38UmZ
From there, digging out of such a large deficit seemed a steep ask. Even as the Canes built a better game in the second period, they never seems to seize control of the pace and flow of the game.
Unfortunately, Carolina lost more than a game on Sunday as Calvin de Haan, just recently returned from a scary eye injury suffered on Colorado was sidelined for the evening, and likely longer based on the call-up of Haydn Fleury from the Checkers on Monday. The injury occurred in a loose puck situation in the Carolina zone late in the first period, in which de Haan appeared to land awkwardly on his wrist/arm following a battle with Jake Guentzel. He did not return to the game, leaving the Canes with only five defensemen, and leaving his status for the remainder of the season in doubt.
Although the Canes owned the shot numbers in the third by a 20-9 margin as they scrambled to mount a comeback, they were never able to generate the kind of scoring chances that can make a team sitting on a lead uncomfortable.
In order to push through the final barrier to the first playoff berth in a decade, Carolina will need more production from some of the names that sparked their play earlier in the season. Micheal Ferland has dealt with various injuries of late, but has only produced six points (one goal) in his past 18 games played. Sebastian Aho has been the offensive hero so often for the Canes, but has not notched a goal in his past 11 games dating back to March 9th. If the Canes are going to finally break through, those two players, as part of a full team effort, are going to have to find the game that helped propel them through much of the season.
As mentioned, the Hurricanes have recalled Haydn Fleury from Charlotte. Fleury has appeared in 17 games this season with the Hurricanes, and will likely slide into the lineup spot vacated by de Haan, should his injury from Sunday keep him out of the lineup.