The Carolina Hurricanes gave up first place in the NHL’s Southeast Division by losing 5-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of a sold out crowd of 18,680 in attendance at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. on Saturday.
The Hurricanes needed to get the upper hand early on, but it was the Lightning who struck first and kept control of the game throughout.
“We got outworked and they out-competed us, and that’s not acceptable,” Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller said afterward.
“In a big game, in your own rink, they outworked us. They wanted it more and they won all the battles.”
Even while both teams traded shots on goal that kept both goaltenders busy, it was Tampa Bay that got the better of Hurricanes netminder Dan Ellis at the midpoint of the opening period.
Defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron beat Ellis high and over his glove hand with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle, and gave the Lightning a 1-0 lead with 9:06 left to play.
Tampa Bay outshot Carolina 13-11 during the period, but the Hurricanes stayed close, particularly after killing off a penalty to Alexander Semin – a critical stop against the league’s fifth-best power play unit.
Working to keep up
Aside from Bergeron’s goal, Ellis made many impressive saves during the second period to keep the Hurricanes in contention for the next twenty minutes of play.
Carolina outshot the Lightning 12-10 and killed off another Tampa Bay man-advantage to keep the score at a one-goal margin while challenging goalie Mathieu Garon from all angles.
Garon made 32 saves during the game and frustrated Carolina’s top scorers, captain Eric Staal and Semin – both of whom led the team in points scored against the Lightning coming into the game.
However, it was Carolina’s lack of keeping consistent tabs on the Lightning offense that created problems for them during the final period of play.
“The game was tight, but that’s not our best,” Muller said.
“In a big game like that, we’ve gotta’ have more weight to our game, we’ve gotta’ win one-on-one battles. We were able to keep the game tight, but I think overall the game tonight – we can’t accept that.”
Tampa Bay’s Benoit Pouliot finished a play set up by linemates Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier to put the Lightning ahead 2-1 early in the third period, but Carolina didn’t falter and managed to keep within a one-goal distance.
After LaRose worked the puck out of the corner to Garon’s right, Nash fed Bowman with a cross-ice pass with which the young forward teed up a slap shot that beat the goalkeeper high and over his stick-side shoulder.
Can’t keep up
Still trailing by a goal, it seemed that the Hurricanes couldn’t match the pace to which the Lightning increased their play to.
“I think they were more effective in their game plan,” Ellis said.
“They get you lookin’, they get you lost behind (the net), and they try to make you lose coverage. I think they overall turned their game up just a notch, that we stayed at the level of the first two periods which was good hockey and we were strong, but in the third I think they elevated and we didn’t.”
Red lights flashing
It was back-to-back goals from Lightning forwards Richard Panik and Tom Pyatt, scored 18 seconds apart, that really turned the heat up on Carolina to keep up.
The Hurricanes went scoreless on two consecutive power play opportunities that were their best chances to get any closer for the remainder of the game.
Even with LaRose scoring his second goal of the season at the 16:11 mark, cleaning up a rebound from defensman Bobby Sanguinetti’s rush into the Tampa Bay zone and subsequent shot on Garon, the Lightning finalized the game with a goal from Steven Stamkos with 2:21 to play.
Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison described the game’s importance succinctly.
“It was the biggest game of the year thus far,” he said.
“First place on the line, playoff mentality, and we came up short. We didn’t generate enough in the third period and that’s on us.”
For Muller, the team’s poor performance put him in the most serious and sour mood he has shown to the media since taking over behind the bench last season.
“Yes, we have injuries. Yes, we have guys playing out of their positions and that’s tough, but there’s not gonna’ be any excuses,” a visibly irritated Muller concluded.
“We got beat in our rink in a big game, and that’s not acceptable.”