RALEIGH, N.C. – If Monday’s tilt — a 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina’s third in a row — was a litmus test for the state of Kirk Muller’s team, they failed miserably.
“We kind of got pushed out of the game,” said Muller. “We weren’t able to generate anything in the third period. But prior to that, they played a heavier game than we did. They won more battles, they grinded harder.”
Once again, the Hurricanes started slow, taking nearly 12:00 before recording their first shot on goal — their only two previous attempts resulting in blocks. A 5-on-3 goal prevented the period from being a total waste, but they were significantly outplayed in the first stanza, even with Muller making it a point of emphasis during the morning skate.
It may have been the Canes’ worst game of the season, with a sloppy first and a closing ten that provided little hope of a comeback.
“When you’re playing a team like Pittsburgh, and some of these others that are strong teams, you’ve got to bring more. You can’t play an average game. We were light tonight.”
Despite the debut of new line combinations — Nathan Gerbe was moved to Eric Staal’s line while Jiri Tlusty skated with Jordan Staal — few quality chances were generated. On the other side of the ice, Sidney Crosby recorded two assists, essentially banking two goals off his own teammates.
“Their big boys, at the end of the night, were on the scoresheet. Some of our guys have to start contributing.”
Muller never named names, but he was visibly unhappy with the play of his team.
“At the end of the day, certain guys are there to produce. But there’s other guys that have to start bringing something to the table.”
It’s been a season-long frustration for Muller. The Hurricanes’ top four scorers — Eric, Gerbe, Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner — have combined for 31 even-strength points. Every other forward has a collective 16. By comparison, Andrej Sekara, Ryan Murphy and Justin Faulk have chipped in that many alone.
Both Jordan Staal and Jiri Tlusty could stand to find their scoring touch. Defensively, the duo has been among Carolina’s best, limiting opponent shots despite getting heavy minutes. But, Islanders’ game aside, neither has done much offensively. Jordan’s whiff on a clear breakaway in Toronto has been a microcosm of his season.
As a team, the Hurricanes are averaging just 2.17 goals per game, nearly half a goal fewer than last year, and that number is dropping with every game. But the chances have been there. They’re still averaging over 30 shots per game, but they haven’t been falling with the same regularity.
“The system hasn’t changed since we’ve been here,” added Muller. “Goal scoring was never an issue. I think we just have to continue to bear down. We’re getting opportunities, we just have to bury it.”
While there are still 70 games to go, and plenty of time for players to break out of their slumps and start contributing, the short term may be a different story. Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin are still on injured reserve, and neither are expected back in the near future. Justin Peters has played well at times, but, like any netminder, he needs goal support.
A year ago, Eric Staal’s line masked the lack of secondary scoring. Though he and Semin are still putting up points, it hasn’t been with the same regularity. For the ‘Canes to be successful, the bottom nine have to begin to produce.