Photo credit: Andy Martin Jr.

Photo credit: Andy Martin Jr.

Heartbreaking. Devastating. Crippling. Plenty of adjectives accurately describe what transpired in the Carolina Hurricanes latest loss, a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. For a team that relies on every precious point, a pit stop to the basement of the Eastern Conference should have been a great warm-up before heading to California. Instead, it was more of the same.

Despite a shot-attempt differential of 67-28, the Hurricanes found themselves tied at 1 in the 3rd period against a supposedly inferior team. Ryan Miller, fresh off a Sochi vacation in which he started one Olympic game, played like the former Vezina winner he is.

He also played like the forward Team USA needed, garnering two assists.

Miller turned aside shot after shot, including 9 on 6 Carolina powerplay opportunities — still an increasingly anemic unit. Had it not been for his heroics, the Sabres almost surely would have been blown out.

At the other end of the rink, Kirk Muller opted to go with Cam Ward. Coming off of the two-week break, everyone had cooled off, and Ward was slated to get a game at some point. The decision proved costly.

Christian Ehrhoff cashed in on the first Buffalo powerplay, beating Ward with a slapshot from the point. Though there was traffic in front of the ‘Canes goaltender, it was minimal, and he saw it all the way, getting a piece of it with his glove. But the puck still trickled through.

Buffalo broke the third-period deadlock on a goal that was equal parts attributable to Ward and the Hurricane defense. A stinging shot by Tyler Ennis was spit out right in front of the net, but Ward also got a piece of Matt Moulson’s rebound attempt. It wasn’t enough, however, as the puck lay there beside him for a few seconds before Ennis spotted it.

“I’m sure [Ward] would like to have a few of those shots back,” said Muller.

Though Alex Semin tied it four minutes later on bullet of a shot, the ‘Canes still had some letdown left in them. For the second time in four games, they gave up a game-winning goal in the final 65 seconds of a tied third period. This time it was a bad bounce off the stick of Justin Faulk that got past Ward, but the situation never should have happened in the first place.

Muller inexplicably sent out Manny Malhotra’s fourth line, and they stood and watched as Ehrhoff entered the zone, circled the Carolina net, and put home the fateful shot. He may as well have been unopposed. A failed clear by Malhotra also led to the meltdown against the Winnipeg Jets just prior to the break. In this one, his group was the only one out-shot by Buffalo, despite the huge disparity in total attempts between the teams.

The strategy was clear — Muller was saving his top guys for overtime — but so was the failure: overtime only exists if you make it there in the first place.

The loss to Buffalo could spell the beginning of the end of a season that started in a similar way. On opening night, the ‘Canes held a late 2-0 lead on the Detroit Red Wings before collapsing to an overtime defeat.

All the expectations on this pivotal season — and Muller — are quickly fading. He’s now in his third year, though the first two were marred by a midseason hire and the latest NHL lockout, but has yet to produce results. The story has been the same as it was under Paul Maurice, and Peter Laviolette before him, and Paul Maurice before him.

In just under 150 games behind the Carolina bench, not even two full seasons, Muller has produced a 63-61-25 record — an 83 point pace over 82 games. Neither the powerplay nor the penalty kill have improved despite talented players on each unit. Nothing has changed.

While the ‘Canes can’t keep entertaining a revolving door of coaches every three years, they do have to ask themselves if Muller is the guy to take them over the hump. In a few short months it will be five years since fans at the then-RBC Center watched the Pittsburgh Penguins sweep the Eastern Conference Finals from the Hurricanes. Playoff hockey hasn’t been seen since, and fans are getting restless.

If the season is to end in April yet again, someone is going to have to take the fall. And it might be Muller.

About The Author

Andrew Luistro graduated from Appalachian State University. An avid sports fan, he began beat writing for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal, part of The Hockey Writers Network, with a focus on the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrew also actively follows the Boston Red Sox and Carolina Panthers, among other teams. Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7

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