The Carolina Hurricanes scored four goals in the opening 10:04 of Friday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, the second-fastest they’ve done so in franchise history. The contest looked like a complete mismatch.
Then the Hurricanes’ penchant to allow opponents to rally from multi-goal deficits nearly cost them the win itself.
With more than six minutes still left to play, the Jets had cut the deficit to 4-3 and were storming around the offensive zone, producing plenty of opportunities to tie the match. Although some heroics from Cam Ward, who made 17 third-period saves, and Andrej Nestrasil, who scored the crucial insurance goal with 1:20 left, helped Carolina escape with a 5-3 victory, the scare nevertheless continued a disturbing trend.
In 11 of the Hurricanes’ 53 games this season, they have scored the first two or more goals of the game unanswered – in other words, they’ve led 2-0, 3-0, 4-0 or 5-0 on 11 occasions.
Then things have gone south with startling predictability.
In a whopping nine of those 11 games, the opponent has responded with two or more unanswered goals of their own. And in five of those games, the opponent has rallied back all the way into a tie.
The pattern seems to stem from a weak second period. In eight of the nine opponent comebacks, the Hurricanes’ lead lasted past the midpoint of the game but a goal in the latter half of the second period jumpstarted the rally. December 12, when the Coyotes found life with a late second period goal cutting the lead to 3-1, and January 9, when the Blue Jackets did the same, stand out as prime examples of this trend.
And although the Hurricanes are 9-0-2 in these games – earning 20 of 22 possible points – their tendency to take their foot off the pedal, loosen up their game and fail to protect a dominant lead will almost certainly cost them dearly at some point down the road.
Against Winnipeg on Friday, the difference between the two teams’ play in the first period could not have been starker. Not only did the scoreboard reflect a blowout, but Carolina also was skating circles around every Winnipeg player on the ice.
The second period, however, brought a change in tone. Even with score still at 4-0, an impending Jets comeback began to feel inevitable.
When a goal cut the deficit to a smaller but still sizable 4-1 margin at the second intermission, I received a message from a fan: “Remember the game at Dallas?” (In that December 8 game, the Hurricanes trailed 4-0 after the first period and rallied to tie it before falling 6-5.) “Knock on wood that that doesn’t happen to us.”
Even the fanbase knew what was coming. And for the majority of the final period, it seemed like even the wood wouldn’t save the Hurricanes from a heartbreaking collapse.
If fans know realize the severity of this weakness by now, opposing teams certainly do too. Down the stretch of the 2015-16 season, with Carolina likely to engage in a number of desperate playoff bubble battles, hungry foes will throw everything they have at any Hurricanes lead, no matter how large.
Carolina is going to have to learn how to bend under pressure without breaking.