RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes ended their pre-Winter Olympics season segment suffering a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in front of a sellout crowd of 18,680 at PNC Arena on Saturday.
As only the second game all season where every seat in Carolina’s home building was officially claimed, both teams came into the critical Eastern Division game having split decisions in their first two games against one another.
Montreal avenged a 5-4 overtime loss to Carolina on New Year’s Eve by earning a 3-0 shutout win on Jan. 28 to set up the third and final meeting between the two as a highly anticipated opportunity to head into the NHL’s break for the Winter Olympics on a winning note.
Playing in their second game of a back-to-back set following a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers the night before, the Hurricanes looked ready to finish their recent home stand by winning three of four games.
However, the Canadiens took advantage of defensive lapses on the Hurricanes’ part and ended up winning the three-game season series, and leaving Carolina splitting the set of games they expected to win a majority of.
“It was disappointing,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said.
“The first period we came out after playing last night and played a good and smart first period. We felt like we weren’t giving them anything. Continuing into the second we made a couple of breakdowns and they capitalized, and I think that was the difference. Overall, we were playing the game – we were fine – except our breakdowns cost us.”
Following a scoreless first period during which the Canadiens outshot the Hurricanes 10-7, Drayson Bowman opened the game’s scoring at 5:32 of the second period.
After defenseman Justin Faulk worked to keep the puck in the Canadiens zone by pushing it forward to Riley Nash in the slot, the centerman then found Bowman open along the boards to Canadiens goaltender Cary Price’s left.
As Nash’s pass slid towards him, Bowman wound up and put a low blast towards Price that eluded him while Tuomo Ruutu ran interference in front of him.
The Hurricanes held their one-goal lead for the next 12 minutes of play, but before the period ended, their entire effort to beat Montreal unraveled.
With 2:08 left, Montreal’s David Desharnais used a give-and-go with Rene Bourque, along with Brendan Gallagher skating along as a decoy, to tie the game up 1-1.
Desharnais carried the puck across the Hurricanes blue line with Bourque to his left and Gallagher to his right.
As Bourque took the pass along the boards, Gallagher cut left towards the net and created a diversion in the low slot and crease areas while Desharnais skated in on the right side to get the return pass from Bourque to put the puck into a wide-open net.
The Canadiens then extended the lead to 2-1 after Ryan White got hit with an Andrei Markov shot that bounced off his backside and dropped close enough for him to backhand the puck past Khudobin for the eventual game-winner.
“It happened pretty quick there at the end of the second,” Bowman said.
“They got two unfortunately and kind of swung the momentum in their favor.”
Trailing by a goal, the game was still within Carolina’s reach, but Price continued to make numerous, and at times exceptional saves, finishing with a total of 31 stops on the night to end the series against the Hurricanes with a 2-0-1 record to go along with a 1.97 GAA and .945 save percentage.
Montreal then extended its lead to two goals at the 6:15 mark of the third period when Desharnais snapped a shot over Carolina netminder Anton Khudobin’s shoulder after getting behind the Carolina defense.
“We didn’t have the drive or the effort to get the two points that we needed tonight,” Faulk said.
“In a game like that, especially before the break, we needed to leave it all out there, but it didn’t go our way and we didn’t get it done.”
After an apparent mix-up on a non-called high stick play, Habs captain Brian Gionta added insult to injury and scored the Canadiens fourth goal to secure their third consecutive win in as many games.
With Khudobin out of the Hurricanes net for the extra attacker, Gionta picked up a loose puck that Brandon Prust pushed away from Faulk in the corner, and outskated Andrej Sekera to finish a wraparound to score the final goal of the game.
The loss dropped Carolina down two points more from a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference standings.
Fortunately for them, they will resume play after the NHL’s scheduled break for the Winter Olympics still holding two games in-hand on the Philadelphia Flyers who occupy that spot in their division while holding a game in-hand on the Detroit Red Wings who sit three points ahead of them in the Conference standings.
The Hurricanes will restart their season ahead of many teams on Feb. 25 as a result of needing to make up their previously postponed road game scheduled against the Buffalo Sabres.
Thus, staying in shape and mentally focused to return will be imperative for his players according to Muller.
“It’s a really tough schedule with the Olympics,” he said.
“We’re gonna’ have a real tough one to start right after. They need to get a real good mental and physical break for whatever four, five days, but then there’s time right after that to get back to workin’ out. I’m sure some of those guys will take a day off and continue to train…The sooner we get here, the better shape they come in and are ready to go, the quicker we can work on the x’s and o’s of the game and get us prepared to go into Buffalo after four practices.”