TORONTO - Another game, another disappointment.
The 2011-12 NHL regular season has been a tough slog for the Carolina Hurricanes, with the latest setback a 2-1 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.
"It's one of those things, you can't get down," said Carolina winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who spent several seasons with the Leafs and scored the Hurricanes' lone goal late in the third period to force the extra period.
"We're still battling for a playoff spot. We have to give our best effort every game.…It didn't work out tonight but at least we got a point out of it."
One point is better than none, but Carolina (9-18-5) has a lot of catching up to do. They dropped to 1-7-2 in their past 10 games and languish in the basement of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Hurricanes best player, captain Eric Staal, has struggled to get on track—he has just seven goals and 20 points in 32 games—and his minus-19 rating ranks among the worst in the NHL.
Jeff Skinner, Carolina's best young forward, has been sidelined with a suspected concussion. They've surrendered 110 goals, the most in the league. They're 5-9-2 at home and 4-9-3 on the road. They're near the bottom of the NHL on both the power play and penalty kill.
But hope remains.
Kirk Muller replaced Paul Maurice as the team's coach two weeks ago, and though the results have been the same—the Hurricanes are 1-5-1 under Muller—Carolina refuses to throw in the towel. Muller said the team's core players have stepped up to the challenge of trying to turn the season around.
"Eric's been a true leader," Muller said. "I asked him to have great body language, to play hard, be my hardest-working guy and he's been great so far. And he just loves to play, he doesn't care who he jumps over the boards with.
"It's nice having a leader like that. We'll continue to try and surround him with good players and get him going."
At the other end of the ice, Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward—the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP after leading Carolina to the Stanley Cup—is the No. 1 goaltender on the worst defensive team in the league.
Ward's giving up about 3.3 goals per game and his save percentage is under .900. He's won just once in his past nine decisions. In Tuesday's loss to the Leafs he was deservedly named one of the three stars.
"(Ward) has so much God-given ability that he's one of those guys who puts a lot of pressure on himself personally," Staal said. "It's been a tough year, not only for him but for a lot of people here."