The Canes had lost just three home games in three months and were confident the RBC Center would help their cause Saturday night, but Carolina collapsed down the stretch again after pulling within 3-2 early in the third, falling 6-2 Saturday night for a third straight loss in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship.
The loss follows a 7-4 defeat in Pittsburgh as the Canes have been outscored 16-8 in three games and face a possible sweep and elimination Tuesday night at home, having led for just 13:45 in the entire series.
“Our challenge is we’ve got to find a way to beat them once and then we’ll try to revisit that,” coach Paul Maurice said. “We’re not looking at trying to beat Pittsburgh four times. We just want to win one game.
“These two days off will be a benefit to us to try to get some of our quickness back in our game and jump back in our legs that we’re struggling with right now.”
And the Canes continued to struggle with defending Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who combined for five more points and now have 14 in the three Pittsburgh wins.
“They are creating some space and some opportunities with their feet and with their tenacity on the puck,” Eric Staal said. “We’ve got to continue as a group of five to try to get sticks out on them and be physical.”
The game started on script as Carolina scored the first goal four minutes in as the crowd was rocking, but things went terribly wrong in the final minute of the first period and the Canes and Cam Ward never really recovered.
“A considerable amount,” Maurice said when asked how much the wind was sucked out of Carolina by goals from Crosby and Malkin within a 31-second span late in the first to send the Canes to the locker room down 3-1 after 20 minutes. “We started the game the way we wanted to, but those two goals clearly changed the way they were able to defend and it made it a little more difficult to get through the neutral zone and get pucks to the net.”
After scoring nine goals in Carolina’s first 11 playoff games, Staal has been held off the scoreboard in six straight as the Canes have fallen into a deep hole.
Still, Sergei Samsonov’s goal less than two minutes into the third period gave the Canes some life at 3-2, but a failed power play midway through the period (Carolina’s first man-advantage of the game) and a nice drop pass by Malkin leading to a Ruslan Fedotenko goal with 8:31 left helped seal Carolina’s fate.
“We’re just not winning enough one-on-one battles in the offensive zone,” Staal said. “They wait for their chances, and they are countering hard and they’re getting their goals that way.”
When asked if Carolina would have to play a perfect game to beat Pittsburgh, Staal shot back: “No. I just think we need to play better. We’re a very good team and we didn’t get this far for no reason, and we didn’t get this far because we’re not good. We haven’t played our best yet and that has shown because we’re down three, but we’re going to bury our heads and take it one game at a time.”
Ward kept the Canes in this one after seeing 31 shots through 40 minutes as Carolina mounted little offense in the second period after trailing 3-1.
“He made some big saves in the second period and kind of gave us a chance in the third,” Staal said of Ward, who has now allowed 11 goals in the last two games after sparkling in the first two playoff series against New Jersey and Boston.
It appeared the Canes would escape the first period tied 1-1 as Ward stopped 13 of Pittsburgh’s first 14 shots, but the Pens struck for two goals over the final 42.2 seconds by Crosby and Malkin. It was Malkin’s second goal of the period and sixth in the first seven periods of the series. He scored Pittsburgh’s tying goal just 32 seconds into a slashing penalty against Patrick Eaves.
Matt Cullen scored the first goal of the game from his knees just 4:06 after taking a centering pass from Eaves to ignite the crowd, which would be silenced later in the period by Pittsburgh’s late barrage.
“We’re not as quick as we need to be to defend them,” Maurice said. “But it’s more than that. Forty-one times we shot the puck and it was either blocked or we missed the net. We need some sharpness. We have to manage and move that puck better, and quicker and faster. And certainly defensively we’re having a hard time with our gaps and some quickness issues.”
“We’ve never been in this spot before but if I was to pick a team to try to come back this would be the one because we’ve done it all year and we’ve done it this playoffs,” Staal said. “We’ve going to work our tails off, because that’s what we do, and we’re going to go from there. We’re going to take it 60 minutes at a time.”NOTES: Staal’s goal-scoring drought is his worst since late November and early December when he went seven straight games without a goal. … Scott Walker assisted on the first Carolina goal and now has points in four of his last five games. … Eaves was without a point for 12 straight playoff games before registering points in each of his last two. … Carolina has just 20 shots in the second periods of three games against the Pens … Tuomo Ruutu returned to the lineup after missing Game 2 with a lower body injury and managed just 10 shifts and less than eight minutes of ice time. … Pittsburgh blocked 22 Carolina shots. … The Canes have been outshot 113-87 in the series. … Carolina was 5-0 in the playoffs when scoring first before Saturday night’s loss.