RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes lost 3-1 to the New Jersey Devils in the fourth and final meeting of the season between the two teams.
Using mathematical wishful thinking as their motivational source, both teams battled for points in the race for a wildcard playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference in front of a boisterous crowd of 16,123 at PNC Arena on Saturday.
Jeff Skinner scored the Hurricanes’ lone goal with defenseman Jay Harrison and center Riley Nash earning assists on the play while goaltender Anton Khudobin made 20 saves in the losing effort.
Even while Carolina stayed within a goal of the Devils, tying the score with Skinner’s goal, they played much of the game one to two strides slower, a pace that impeded their ability to overtake the visiting team at any point.
“We just didn’t have everybody,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said after acknowledging a ‘a lot of players’ came out playing with a some sense of desperation.
“It’s too bad because we had a few good games going here that we went on the road and played hard and earned the points. I don’t want to take it away from the group of guys that came and did what they’re supposed to do and played hard. We didn’t have everyone on the page tonight and when you’re playin’ tight games like this, playoff mentality, you’re not gonna’ get the result.”
While the Hurricanes had a day to rest after beating the Dallas Stars 4-1 on Thursday, it was the Devils who managed to win the second of their back-to-back road set and go home with another two points.
It would’ve made sense for Carolina to dominate a road-weary club missing key players to earn the points at home by being ready to do so by ‘being on the same page’.
Apparently they weren’t and Muller wondered just as much as the media member asking the question what the reason for it was.
“I don’t know. Did you ask the players?” Muller responded when asked.
“There’s no excuses. You win or you lose,” he continued.
“You get out of it what you put into it. There were some guys that really put into it and some guys didn’t, and at the end of the night you fall short.”
Dainius Zubrus opened the game’s scoring with 4:27 remaining in the first period and gave the Devils a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
While being outshot 27-22, the Hurricanes did pressure New Jersey goalkeeper Cory Schneider who finished with 26 saves in the winning effort.
They just didn’t do it enough to beat him with the exception of Skinner’s 31st goal of the season that blemished his otherwise clean effort in net.
On the scoring play which eventually was reviewed, it appeared that Skinner’s shot had rung off the cross bar.
As the puck deflected towards the blue line, Skinner made a gesture towards the referee indicating that he thought that he had scored.
As play continued on, the Devils rung a shot off the iron behind Khudobin as well, but play was stopped shortly afterwards to review Skinner’s shot.
It was confirmed as a goal at the 4:50 mark of the second period, tying the score 1-1.
That was the closest Carolina would come to having a chance to win the game.
“That’s the way they play,” Skinner said in describing New Jersey’s tight checking style of game.
“To beat that though, you gotta’ skate, get pucks in deep and get to work in their end. We didn’t do enough of that I think. We had some moments where we had some good chances, but we didn’t sustain it.”
The Devils took the lead back again at 6:34 when Travis Zajac deflected Marek Zidlicky’s point shot that made it past Khudobin.
Acting as the screen in front of Khudobin, Zajac managed to get his stick on the play that gave New Jersey a 2-1 lead.
Trailing by a goal again, Carolina continued to pressure the Devils into the final 10 minutes of play in the second.
During one sequence four minutes later, the Hurricanes took three successive shots on Schneider, but couldn’t beat him.
Similar to the first period, New Jersey carried a one-goal advantage into the second intermission, still leading 2-1.
For much of the first half of the third period, the Devils controlled the pace of play and put many shots toward Khudobin while Carolina’s skaters were visibly scrambling to defend in their zone.
The Russian netminder was the true saving grace for the Hurricanes as their defensive play appeared to be lacking in energy and execution while he prevented the game from getting out of hand.
With former Carolina forward Tuomo Ruutu in the box for tripping with 12:07 to play, the Hurricanes’ special teams units couldn’t capitalize on their fourth man-advantage opportunity of the game.
They went scoreless on all four power play opportunities they had.
Even at even strength and with the extra attacker on the ice after pulling Khudobin from the goal on two separate occasions with less than two minutes to play, Carolina’s lack of sharpness in making passes connect to get shots on goal to beat Schneider reached its end.
Zubrus scored his second goal of the game, an empty-netter that put the finishing touch on the Devils’ win.
With four games remaining on the season and with the chances of earning a playoff spot even more remote with the loss, how does this team continue on to finish the season without falling apart entirely?
For Skinner, he’s seen this happen before and hasn’t played a postseason game in his career yet.
He knows nothing different, and spoke of maintaining a professional and positive attitude to continually improve.
“I think we’ve got enough guys in here that have played a long time,” Skinner said.
“We’re professionals and we need to come to work. There’s not many pluses to take out of it, but you always want to continue to work on your game, continue to improve as a team. That’s what your mindset has to be. You’re always trying to improve as a person and as a player. Coming down the stretch that shouldn’t change, regardless of where you are (in the standings).”