As the Carolina Hurricanes blew a third-period lead in Toronto Thursday en route to their seventh consecutive loss, head coach Kirk Muller looked on sternly from behind a bench of 15 confidence-shaken players.
After the hosting Maple Leafs scored two empty-net goals in the game's final minute to seal a 6-3 victory, Muller grimaced, turned and walked swiftly out of the sight of 19,236 celebrating fans and towards the Hurricanes' locker room.
The collapse of the 'Canes' season, which once seemed destined to return the franchise to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, was surely weighing on Muller enormously at such a moment. His squad had just squandered their best opportunity to end a miserable two-and-a-half week stretch of pain and despair.
For the young, second-year head coach in a success-starved market, it was the worst situation imaginable.
Approximately half an hour later, that pressured frustration boiled over in a ten-second press conference response that no Hurricanes follower will soon forget and, until the team starts to win again, no Hurricanes follower will soon forgive, either.
"Bottom line, to be honest, we didn't get the saves," Muller told reporters. "We didn't get the saves at the right time...and that cost us."
It was a rare case of specific calling-out from the generally even-headed coach, who no more than threw inexperienced, fragile Justin Peters, the franchise's third goaltender on the depth chart, under an elephant-sized bus of shame.
Peters made saves on 30 of 34 shots for an .882 save percentage on the night.
Indeed, .882 isn't great. But, for a career minor-leaguer suddenly thrust into the starting spot for an NHL team with a more-than-suspect defense, it isn't horrible, either.
To use Muller's words, the bottom line is that the Hurricanes were outshot 36-22, including 15-5 in the final frame. The bottom line is that the Hurricanes took five of the game's final six penalties. The bottom line is that, for the first half of the game, the Hurricanes looked no more energized than they had for the six previous contests.
Yes, the 'Canes have had more than their fair share of injury problems and yes, they've had more than their fair share of bad luck and bad bounces, too. Half the roster is playing more than they're used to and matched against opposition miles more talented than themselves.
And yet, in a league of such tremendous parity and such condensed schedule, stretches are bound to happen sometime. What separates the successful teams from the bottom-feeders is how they fight through those stretches.
In the Paul Maurice era of Carolina hockey, that resilience was never present.
For the first 16 months of the Kirk Muller era, it usually was.
Now it isn't anymore.
Why? The issue may well reside in confidence—a trait the 'Canes are dearly lacking at the moment.
Muller, for all of the positive improvements he has brought the club, is not one to pin struggles on himself.
"We're not going to make any excuses, but when we lost [Justin] Faulk, that starts to put some holes in the game going into the third," he told reporters after a 4-1 loss last week to the 15th-place Florida Panthers.
It's always about the players. It's never about Muller himself.
Admittedly, no one really knows what is said when the team is behind closed doors, when the real interaction between the players and the coach occurs. To the public eye, nonetheless, the disparity in tone is resoundingly obvious.
What's it going to take to get the crumbling Carolina Hurricanes back on track?
A little more effort from the players. A little better luck on the scoreboard. And, arguably, a lot more responsibility and dependability from Kirk Muller, as well.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009, receiving almost one million views on his 450-plus articles to date.
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