In must-win game, Hurricanes come up flat in 4-0 loss to Toronto

Journeyman goalie Curtis McElhinney blanks Carolina

RALEIGH — It had the feel of a do-or-die game for the Carolina Hurricanes. After a 4-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday at PNC Arena, their playoff hopes look dead.Connor Brown scored Toronto’s first and final goals on nearly identical plays, a deja vu moment in the latest loss of what has been a deja vu season for the Hurricanes.”A lot of the goals, when you look at, there’s a common theme,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “I think we got skated a little bit and lost body position.”Carolina kept their faint playoff hopes alive for a while, but it now looks like the team is headed to an eighth straight season without a playoff appearance. GM Ron Francis will likely begin shopping the few role players he has on expiring contracts and start looking to 2017-18.A glance at the standings shows Carolina (24-23-8) tied with Dallas for the third fewest points in the NHL, and even the points percentage standings — which favor the Hurricanes because they have games in hand on the entire league — have them 13th in the Eastern Conference.”This was a big game. We knew that coming in to it,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “We know we have a lot of hockey left. You gotta stay with it, you gotta keep working. For us, we’re in a little bit of a funk now, but you gotta find ways to get out of it. And the only way that’s going to happen is if you do it yourself. You can’t really sort of sit around and wait for things to break your way.”The Hurricanes outshot the Leafs 15-6 in the first period, but neither team could find the back of the net in the opening frame. Toronto didn’t take long in the second to strike first and seize control of the game. Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak zipped a rink-wide pass through the neutral zone to James van Riemsdyk, who feathered a pass to Brown for a redirection past Cam Ward (20 saves) to make it 1-0 just 67 seconds into the second period.Toronto (27-20-11) stretched their lead to two in the middle of the period on rookie phenom Autson Matthews’ 28th goal of the season. Matthews got a step on Carolina’s Phil Di Giuseppe, powered to the net and fought through a delayed penalty to slide the puck through Ward to make it 2-0.Carolina had three power plays in the game but couldn’t beat Curtis McElhinney — who was a waiver claim by Toronto on Jan. 10 from Columbus — coming closest when Justin Faulk rang the post with the man-advantage.”It’s 2-0 and I didn’t think it should’ve been 2-0,” Peters said. “I think we should’ve been on the board. So if you’re on the board, you’re going into a period of hockey with a one-goal game. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t like the way we responded to the third goal that they scored, right? I thought we sagged, definitely.”That deathblow came from Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, whose wrist shot from the point 6:10 into the third extended the lead to 3-0.Brown then got a second goal similar to his first, redirecting another van Riemsdyk pass behind Ward for a 4-0 lead with less than 12 minutes remaining. Shortly thereafter, Ward went to the bench in favor of backup Eddie Lack. Toronto quickly got one past Lack, but the hockey gods showed some mercy when the goal was waived off due to incidental contact.Peters has long said Carolina needed a big win streak to enter the playoff picture — and said he still believes his team has it in them.”I don’t think you can hope that that’s going to happen, right? You’ve got to make that happen,” he said.Jordan Staal’s old team, the Penguins, come to town Tuesday — and a reminder of the last time he reached the postseason.”You start letting those thoughts creep in, nothing good comes from that,” Staal said of seemingly another lost season.Notes: The line of Victor Rask centering Brock McGinn and Lee Stempniak was relegated to fourth line duty, with the Jay McClement line earning more ice time. … Phil Di Giuseppe played his first NHL game since Dec. 10 after being recalled from Charlotte. He finished with a game-high seven shots on goal, which matched his career high. … McElhinney’s shutout, the fifth of his career, was his first his Jan. 2, 2014. … Gardiner finished plus-4 on the night and registered his first three-point night of his career. He had one four-point game previously. … Di Giuseppe and Skinner were both minus-3. … Teuvo Teravainen won 13 of 18 faceoffs.