Goaltending could keep 'Canes out of playoffs
MAR 29, 2013 2:14p ET
Not that long ago, the 'Canes were in first place in the Southeast Division. Now, amid a 0-6-1 run, they are on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in.
A six-point deficit behind Winnipeg will be difficult to overcome – even with three games in hand and 16 games remaining. In addition, the 10th-place Hurricanes sit three points behind the New York Rangers, who currently occupy the East’s final playoff spot, and are the same number of points behind the ninth-place New York Islanders, although the 'Canes do hold a game in hand on the Rangers and two on the Islanders.
Some of Carolina’s current difficulties could be laid at the feet of goaltending. During the seven games, 'Canes goalies have allowed 23 goals, an average of 3.28 per game (the team as a whole, has allowed 26, including three empty-netters).
To compare that average to the league’s goals-per-game rankings for a full season, the Hurricanes would be 29th in the league, tied with Calgary, which has allowed 3.28 per game for the entire season.
Only in two of those games have Carolina goalies posted a save percentage of better than .900, the mark at which it is basically essential for goalies to perform for their teams to win. One of those games was a 35-save effort by Dan Ellis in which the 'Canes lost in a shootout 2-1 to the New York Rangers. Ellis followed that up with a 40-save effort in a numbing 4-1 loss to lowly Florida, which is tied for the league’s fewest points.
In the next game, Ellis wasn’t at his best – four goals on 22 shots, an .818 save percentage – when he suffered a lacerated leg. In some respects, the Hurricanes were lucky in that they had five days off after that game before their next one. During this compacted season, some teams might have three games in that span – a stretch the 'Canes are about to face.
With Ellis out, the 'Canes are down to their No. 3 goaltender – a situation that no team anticipates having to deal with going into a season. No. 1 Cam Ward (sprained knee) remains out and could still be a few weeks away from returning. Ellis began skating with the team in Toronto on Friday and could be back some time next week, but the “when” is critical.
The 'Canes have three games in four days starting on Saturday. Saturday’s game is at the division-leading Jets. Three more losses and the Canes’ playoff chances might not be able to recover.
For now, they have to go with Justin Peters, 26, who, by all accounts, is a model individual. Peters helped to shepherd Jeff Skinner through the forward’s Calder Trophy-winning rookie season of 2010-11 when Skinner was 18, serving as Skinner’s roommate. But to rely on Peters in goal at a potentially season-defining moment carries some risks.
His career record is 13-15 with a goals-against average of 3.22 and a .900 save percentage. In two of his three seasons, including this one at .899, his save percentage has not risen above .900. Peters had worked as the back-up in previous seasons and so there was a reason why general manager Jim Rutherford went out and signed Ellis to be the back-up this season.
While the 'Canes have also struggled to score – they went five straight games during their streak in which they only scored one game – shaky goaltending can affect everything on a team. It can erode confidence in every player and lead to systemic breakdowns.
An example of this could be quite familiar to the 'Canes. During the 2005-06 season when the 'Canes won the Stanley Cup, division rival Atlanta went through even worse goaltending issues. The Thrashers played a majority of the 82-game season without their top two goaltenders because of injuries and were forced to rely on two players who had only minimal experience at the American Hockey League level to get by.
Several times late in the second half of the season, Atlanta crushed the eventual Cup champions – 5-1 on Jan. 26, 2006, 5-2 on April 1, and 5-2 again on April 8 – but in the end, the Thrashers, who could have made some noise in the playoffs, failed to qualify for the playoffs as a couple more goaltending injuries cost them late.
There’s not much on the goalie market these days and no move would be guaranteed to get the 'Canes into the playoffs. Nonetheless, it’s something that Rutherford will have to consider with the trade deadline looming on Wednesday.
Like that ’05-’06 Atlanta team, he has a talented group of defensemen and forwards who might be able to make some noise in the postseason – if the 'Canes can get in. If not, it could be a fourth straight spring without postseason hockey in Carolina.
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