The Carolina Hurricanes conceded a shorthanded goal, a four-on-four goal and a power-play goal in the third period Friday night as the New York Rangers delivered a decisive dagger into their last lingering playoff hopes.
The meltdown was the lowest point yet in Carolina's special teams debacle, which, in recent weeks, has resembled less of the roller coaster that defined its first four months and more of an endless free-fall into nevermore.
In 28 power-play opportunities—although that word choice is generous—since the end of the Olympic break, the Hurricanes' man-advantage unit has scored zero goals and allowed four. Their season-long conversion rate of 12.6 percent ranks 29th in the NHL.
It's no longer a slump. It's a dysfunctional embarrassment.
And that traces a thick line back to the coaching staff.
The 'Canes have offensive talent on this roster, an offensive roster that has excelled elsewhere and showed dominant flashes at even strength.
Plenty of personnel have also received their chances on power play, from out-of-town additions John-Michael Liles and Andrei Loktionov to minor contributors Jay Harrison and Drayson Bowman.
But somewhere, the equation isn't computing. Somewhere, mistakes are being made. Somewhere lies a fundamental flaw in this system.
With all the other variables seemingly tested, only one answer remains viable—and it's behind the bench.
Said head coach Kirk Muller about Carolina's power play Friday, which went 0-of-5, even on 43 seconds of five-on-three time, and allowed a devastating short-handed tally:
Muller on power-play problems: "When you get outworked on it and you don't execute, the end result isn't there. We didn't get the job done."— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) March 8, 2014
On the surface, Muller seemed justifiably disappointed and critical. But what did he really say? Power-play strategies are not described in cliches; analyses of those strategies' failures should not be, either.
The Rangers' short-handed goal to tie the game with 12:35 to play was not because the Hurricanes' power play "got outworked" and "didn't execute."
It was because the Hurricanes' power play lazily lost a board battle, had only two men even attempt to defend the ensuing counterattack, then got drawn mindlessly onto one side of the ice on the rush.
After Rick Nash emerged out of the scrum, neither Eric Staal nor Elias Lindholm regained his senses in time to get back into the play.
Andrej Sekera pressured Nash, while Alexander Semin covered on Derek Stepan, leaving defenseman Ryan McDonagh wide open trailing the play on the reverse side.
Not only was the Hurricanes' backcheck effort weak, they also lost grip on usual defensive principles and committed too much on the possession side—a no-no when defending any three-on-two rush, at even strength or on the power play.
But the 'Canes would not have faced this situation, would not have been drawn in to the board battle in the first place, if they learned to calmly carry the puck into the zone. Severe impatience has yielded to nonsensical and greatly excessive dump-and-chase on the power play.
Examine Andrew Cogliano's short-handed goal on Carolina in Anaheim on Sunday. Analyze Brendan Dillon's and Jamie Benn's short-handed goals on Carolina in Dallas last Thursday. Every time, it's the same story—a counterattack that stupefies the 'Canes, pries the defensive skills out of their minds and paralyzes them in a lasso of power-play frustration and hesitancy.
Should Kirk Muller be fired? Will he be fired?
One of the most obvious jobs of a coach is to point out and work to fix mistakes. Not only have the 'Canes coaches evidently not done this, they don't appear to have even identified the mistake.
As the Hurricanes' power play continues its increasingly historic run of uselessness, the responsibility to adopt a new approach falls on the coaching staff.
Not on the players stuffed into the same blatantly ineffective roles shift after shift after shift, man-advantage opportunity after opportunity after opportunity.
No, it falls on the stubborn men doing the stuffing.