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DeCock: After playing well enough to win, this loss will really sting Carolina Hurricanes

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH Anton Khudobin wasn’t even expecting to play Sunday, so maybe he could see this coming from his seat on the bench over the first 11 minutes and change.

“Some of the nights like this, whatever you’re shooting, the goalie just stops,” Khudobin said.

Teams will occasionally lose despite outshooting their opponents 51-24, a season-high in shots for the Carolina Hurricanes. They rarely lose those games 5-3, as the Hurricanes did to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday. The last time the Hurricanes took 50 or more shots, they won 9-0. It has been almost eight years since they took 50 shots and lost.

“It’s just unfortunate, the outcome, because there were a lot of good things,” Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said.

If the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, and it’s still far too early to say whether they’re heading that direction or not, these are the losses that end up killing you in the end, not the no-shows and the blowouts. It’s the ones where you did so much of what you needed to win -- and didn’t.

They jumped on Tampa Bay early, only to be undone by some uncharacteristic defensive breakdowns by usually reliable players like Justin Faulk and Patrick Dwyer, and absent any bacon-saving saves from Justin Peters, making his first appearance since Dec. 27.

Just as Eric Staal and Alexander Semin finally start to get going, with a goal each Sunday, the one absolute bedrock constant of the Hurricanes this season lets them down. Faulk and Andrej Sekera were on the ice for every goal as the Hurricanes fell behind 4-0 only 21 minutes into the game and finished minus-4. Bad timing for an off night.

“The two of them would be the first to say that wasn’t their best first period,” Muller said.

And, of course, this opponent was Tampa Bay, a team with the Hurricanes’ number for a while now. The Lightning has won seven of the past eight in Raleigh and nine of the past 10 overall against the Hurricanes, although this one will rankle for a long time regardless of whether it comes to haunt the Hurricanes in the standings.

“We do feel fortunate to get out of here with two points,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “but we’re not giving them back.”

Muller had a difficult choice in goal, with Khudobin coming off only 22 hours rest after Saturday’s win over the Florida Panthers and Peters in need of some work to stay sharp with Cam Ward still out, skating on his own Sunday morning but not yet with the team. Muller ended up with the worst of both worlds. The Hurricanes lost and Khudobin didn’t even get his night off.

Peters wasn’t at fault for any of the three goals he allowed on seven shots before exiting the game after a mere 11:40, but he didn’t make the kind of head-turning stops that the Hurricanes have gotten lately from Khudobin in wins and losses alike.

“All those goals that can deflate you, they capitalized on,” Staal said.

Such fine margins, and yet for a team annually on the playoff bubble, these fine margins can make the difference in the end. Fans of this franchise should know that better than anyone. Three times in the past seven years, the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs by four points or less.

Right now, with 34 games to play, they’re six points out of a top-three position in their division, but with only three teams below them in the conference. That leaves a lot of leap-frogging to do, and still time to do it, but for a team that doesn’t have much margin of error to start with, these are the losses that really sting.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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