For all the talk about “must win” games lately, the Carolina Hurricanes sure have been losing a lot of them.
On the last day before the NHL’s Olympic break, the Hurricanes welcomed the Montreal Canadiens to town in what was the latest tilt to be dubbed that important. But despite the mantra, it was Montreal that came away with the 4-1 win, with the lone goal once again coming from the bottom of the order.
“Our fourth line was our best line tonight,” Kirk Muller said. “We had some guys tonight that played really well, played hard. But we didn’t have everybody on board. That doesn’t cut it in this league. It was disappointing. Some guys didn’t bring their “A” game tonight.”
Over the last several, Tuomo Ruutu has consistently brought his, and has been the ‘Canes best forward. But given that he’s been banished to the fourth line, that’s not exactly a good thing.
Despite being on the second half of a back-to-back, Carolina came out with energy before their second sold out crowd of the season. Once again Ruutu led the way, engaging bull-in-a-China-shop mode, but, more importantly, he drove play.
While he was on the ice, his team out-shot Montreal 20 to 6, trailing only linemate Riley Nash for the best margin. But beyond that, he was making smart decisions, which ultimately led to the opening goal early in the second period.
Rather than chip the puck up the boards, Ruutu hesitated, circled back, and made a pass, exiting the zone with control. After the transition chance, he ended up with the puck in the corner. An attempted pass to Nash was swatted away to the point by PK Subban, but Justin Faulk displayed some excellent hand-eye coordination to keep it in. A series of passes led to a rocket of a shot by Drayson Bowman that beat Carey Price, who never saw it thanks to the screen by Ruutu.
On the goal, he could have earned 3 points by himself, but was credited with none. Still, the score doesn’t happen without any one of his plays.
From there, however, things quickly spiraled out of control.
In a two minute span, Montreal tied it on a tic-tac-toe passing play, finished off by David Desharnais, then took the lead after a bad bounce found Ryan White all alone in front. On both goals, the Carolina contingent of players — both Staal lines and the top defensive pairing — were stationary and reactionary.
Ruutu’s line nearly jump-started another ‘Canes comeback by themselves. A bang-bang pass from Ruutu in the corner — this time to Bowman — nearly beat Price, but his glove was quicker. Bowman’s hat trick of chances concluded when he was robbed by Price’s pads a few minutes later.
At one point the line was even given a large ovation by the crowd after spending an entire shift in the Montreal end. But despite their efforts, there were no more goals to be had, and the ‘Canes dropped to 16-2-4 when scoring first.
“It’s a tough one, like the one before Christmas break,” said Ruutu. “We had a one goal lead, but then, something was missing. They scored four goals in our own building. It was just too much.”
Though Ruutu saw his mini point-streak end, he still ranks 5th on the team in even-strength points per 60 minutes. With Nash sitting 3rd and Bowman 9th, there’s an argument to be made for the trio to receive even more minutes.
“They’re working hard,” said Muller. “They’ve been playing well defensively as far as not getting scored on. But they’re also creating a lot of chances. And when they do, they’re actually capitalizing on them.”
After the two week hiatus, the ‘Canes will embark on a season-long five game road trip that will take them through California, and up to the trade deadline. From there, it’s a quick sprint to the finish, with every successive game likely to receive the “must win” moniker.
“We just need to have even more fight,” Ruutu said. “Obviously, there are some teams that we have to catch. We’ve got to win games. That’s about it.”