RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes are struggling to beat one of the NHL’s best goaltenders and facing injuries to two players who could help them change that.
The challenge of derailing the reigning Stanley Cup champion just isn’t getting easier.
Carolina trails 2-0 in the second-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, twice losing one-goal games on home ice. Now the Lightning are returning home for Thursday night’s Game 3, and time is running out for the Hurricanes to create the one or two breaks that coach Rod Brind’Amour keeps hoping are close.
“To me, you have to stick with what we’re doing,” Brind’Amour said Wednesday. “Obviously we can clean up some things. Obviously we can be better at everything. … I like how we’re playing. It’s just we’ve got to convert.”
The Hurricanes have certainly gotten their chances.
The Central Division champions have managed two goals on 70 shots against Andrei Vasilevskiy, losing by 2-1 margins in Games 1 and 2 despite playing in front of a rowdy home crowd of more than 16,000. Each game has ended with the Hurricanes spending much of the final minute with an empty net and extra attacker in a desperate attempt to try to beat the Vezina Trophy finalist once more.
Vasilevskiy has been up to that test.
“They’re a shot-volume kind of team and you could see that in the (first-round) series against Nashville, too – they put up a lot of shots,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “I think we’ve done a good job of eliminating the real Grade-A (chances), but once they happen, Vas has been there and been rock solid for us.”
The Hurricanes’ production is limited to Jake Bean’s straightaway power-play goal in Game 1 and Andrei Svechnikov’s putaway just outside the crease late in Game 2. Worse, they’ve surrendered the first goal in seven of their eight playoff games, including six straight going back to the Nashville series, which has only increased the urgency to break through while facing a deficit.
Carolina lost Game 2 despite outshooting Tampa Bay 32-15, but also had more than double the giveaways (23-11) while the Lightning blocked 16 shots.
“I don’t think we have changed anything,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said. “Just the way we’ve been playing all year, we’ve been playing these two games. I think the system is there, the effort is there. We just have to believe and trust ourselves that the results are going to come.”
The problem is: two of the guys the Hurricanes would turn to for help — center Vincent Trocheck and winger Nino Niederreiter – are injured with an uncertain return.
Niederreiter, second on the team with 20 regular-season goals, exited Saturday’s skate early with an upper-body injury. At the time, Brind’Amour said he didn’t anticipate it being a major concern, though Neiderreiter missed Game 1 and Brind’Amour said afterward he was “very, very doubtful” for the rest of the series.
Then came Tuesday’s injury to Trocheck, who is third on the team with 17 regular-season goals and second with 43 points.
Trocheck was hurt when he and teammate Warren Foegele banged legs as they skated by each other. Trocheck put little to no weight on his right leg as he hobbled to the bench, slamming his stick on the ice before heading to the locker room. He played only one short shift in the third period.
Brind’Amour said Wednesday that Niederreiter won’t travel to Tampa while Trocheck is still being evaluated.
Brind’Amour said the Hurricanes have played “more than good enough to win” the first two games of the series. He also said he has no concerns about how his team will respond against the playoff-tested Lightning.
“They manage the puck, they manage the situations,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s why they’re great at what they do because they’ve been through it. They understand. But I think our game is right there.”
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