Justin Williams, at least, should be able to enjoy his break. He won’t enjoy it, because he’ll be more miserable than anyone with the way his team went into the break. But at least he answered the call when it came.
Williams was the first to stand up for Sebastian Aho when the Carolina Hurricanes’ star was blasted while cutting through the slot by Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano with a doubly damaging hit that knocked Aho out of the game – and for who knows how long.
Even if Giordano wasn’t trying to hit Aho in the chin with his shoulder, for which he picked up a match penalty, he still caught him knee-to-knee. Aho was down for a while, then got up dragging his left leg behind him. Any damage to his head wasn’t as apparent.
“There’s lots to be looked at there,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said, without any update Sunday on Aho’s health.
The Hurricanes were already down 2-0 at that point, and deservedly so, on their way to a 4-1 loss in a game that goes into the “Things can always get worse” Hall of Fame.
Whether it was a hangover from Friday’s collapse or the residual impact of the flu bug that kept the team away from the rink Saturday, this was abysmal from the start – Justin Faulk, maybe angling for a spot in the All-Star Game, turned the puck over to gift the Flames their first goal – and actually managed to get worse.
“It could be all those things,” co-captain Jordan Staal said, once again appearing to be the sole captain. “It’s frustrating and unfortunate. From the start we didn’t have a lot of anything.”
“Very unusual, the way we played today,” Peters said.
Aho absorbed a gruesome-looking pretzel bend to his right knee eight days ago on an awkward but legal hit and was back for the next game, but this looked exponentially worse, and if his knee’s OK, who knows about his head? And vice versa.
Too predictably, the Hurricanes had no response from anyone other than the 36-year-old Williams, who picked up an instigator for good measure. Other than one good Elias Lindholm pop on Andrew Mangiapane and a few attempted hits by Brock McGinn (who, to his credit, was right behind Williams going after Giordano), the Hurricanes as a team hadn’t hit anyone all night and didn’t seem inspired to hit anyone after that.
“I thought Willy did a great job,” Staal said, then paused for a long time. “I thought Willy did a good job.”
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For all their youth and exuberance and skill, this is still a soft team, too soft to win a playoff round even if the goaltending somehow holds up. Aho is fearless – too fearless, as it turned out, Sunday – and Williams knows what it takes to win. McGinn has some pop and Lindholm is capable when he’s engaged, but for the most part, the Hurricanes have neither the strength nor the mentality to exert a physical influence on the game.
It’s not about penalty minutes, although the Flames have seven players who would lead the Hurricanes in that category. It’s not about playing dirty, and Giordano’s hit actually could have been worse if he’d raised his elbow. It’s not about fighting, either. It’s about delivering hits that create chances and absorbing hits to make plays. Too many Hurricanes appear to have little interest in either. It’s fair to ask how much Peters’ emphasis on positional play restricts those opportunities, taking away from one area to strengthen another, but too many players appear determined to avoid contact.
Either way, when opponents say the Hurricanes are tough to play against – and they can be, at their best – it’s not because they wake up sore the next morning.
The Hurricanes have a week off now before they resume play at Detroit on Saturday. Peters said before the game he wanted the players to be refreshed when they return; this week would be better spent on some introspection and self-reflection than relaxation.
“You got to give yourself a mental break, and then you’re going to have to wrap your head around the identity of our team and how we have to play to be successful,” Peters said. “The nights that we’re not the hardest-working team, and I don’t know our record, but it wouldn’t be flattering. So if we’re not going to wrap our head around the fact that we have to start on time, each and every night, and outwork our opponent, then it’s going to be a frustrating second half.”
It’s hard to imagine a more frustrating final 63:08 heading into the break. The tepid response to what happened to Aho in the minutes that followed the hit was as stinging an indictment of this team’s will as anything. Through 45 games, the Hurricanes are actually a point behind where they were last season.
So it still remains to be seen whether these players are willing to pay the price it takes to win or just content to muddle through the rest of this season, doing just enough to stay on the playoff bubble, watching their best player get laid out and shrugging their collective shoulders in reply.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock