It might be a bit premature to suggest the Carolina Hurricanes have deteriorated from champs to chumps, but they've certainly been playing mediocre hockey lately.
And there's no certainty now that they're even going to get as far as the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, let alone defend the Stanley Cup.
The Canes' ineptitude was particularly conspicuous in back-to-back games this week against the Ottawa Senators.
On Wednesday night, they were shut out 3-0 by the Sens, prompting TSN hockey analyst Pierre McGuire to wonder on the air whether the Carolina players were even trying or why they even bothered to show up in Ottawa.
On Tuesday night, the Canes were embarrassed by the same Sens on their home ice in Carolina, where they squandered a 2-1 lead after two periods and allowed the Sens to prevail 4-2.
The Canes are only 16-13-4 at home, which means they've been almost as poor in their home building as subpar teams such as the St. Louis Blues, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs have been this season on their home surfaces.
Carolina has surrendered a third-period lead in each of its past three home games, in fact, which is not the sort of stuff you ordinarily see from respectable teams.
The Canes also have scored only 13 goals in their most recent eight games on their home ice.
Last season, the Canes were 31-0-2 when leading after two periods and they were 21-0 this season before their troubles at home began.
Peter Laviolette is pissed. The Canes' head coach is annoyed at what he's perceiving as a lack of effort by his players.
After Tuesday night's loss, he said: “We were just flat. We were asleep. We got outskated, outbattled. You’re not going to win games like that.”
Defenceman Bret Hedican said the Canes have developed bad habits coming out of their own end of the rink.
"It's weird," he said. "Our team has to be a little bit better with the game on the line. We just have to execute better and have a little more confidence that we can make plays out there."
“It’s frustrating, for sure,” Canes forward Eric Staal said. “We’re playing not to lose, not to get scored on and not playing our game, which is attacking and going at people, continuing to jump into the rush, continuing to generate offence. When you don’t do that, you leave yourself vulnerable.”
Carolina acquired veteran forward Anson Carter in a deal with Columbus last week, giving up only a fifth-round draft pick in 2008. So far, though, Carter hasn't helped much. The Canes figure they need considerable contributions from him, as well as from veteran Cory Stillman, who has returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an injured knee. He also missed the team's first 31 games after off-season shoulder surgery.
"There's no question (Stillman) was one of our top players last year and made a big impact, and he was one of the main reasons we won the Stanley Cup," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said. "With Cory being hurt most of the season, it certainly has affected our team. When he's in the lineup, we're a different team."
They'll need to be, starting this weekend, or they won't come anywhere close to matching their accomplishments of last season.
• The Blues probably aren't going anywhere this season, but at least they're not singing the Blues any more.
Club boss John Davidson did some significant wheeling-dealing before this week's trade deadline and, combined with what appears to be a bit of a renaissance under new coach Andy Murray, St. Louis is making an impressive charge up the Western Conference standings as the season draws close to its conclusion.
Barret Jackman, at 25, seems to have prospered from Murray's tutelage. While the NHL's rookie of the year from 2003 was benched for one game after Murray took over for Mike Kitchen in St. Louis, he has compiled 12 assists and a plus-6 rating in his 31 games after that.
"Things have changed," Jackman said. "We're playing the type of game now where we want to see the defence be more active on the rush and giving kind of a high option. It’s just been working out. I’ve been getting the puck a few times and good things have happened."
As for that rookie award he won, Jackman said: "It seems like a different decade. It seems like a different league that happened in. There’s been a lot of changes since then. You have to keep earning respect and earning accolades throughout your career. That was one page in my career and now we have another chapter to write."
• Veteran Bryan McCabe has been dreadful as a defenceman with the Maple Leafs this season and, in the view of one insider, it's not because he's dogging it.
"He's trying too hard," former Leaf-turned-broadcaster Bill Berg said. "It's so obvious that Bryan's trying too hard. You can see it every time he's on the ice."
•NHL scouts figure rookie centre Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche is en route to superstardom.
His father, of course, was already a superstar in the NHL. Peter Stastny defected from Czechoslovakia to Canada and joined the now-defunct Quebec Nordiques in 1980, then scored 39 goals and 109 points in his first NHL season. He went on to score 450 goals and 1,239 career points, played in six All-Star Games and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. He now represents Slovakia in the European Parliament.
Paul, a center like his father, grew up in the United States., playing with River City in the USHL before heading to the University of Denver in 2004. After scoring 45 points in 42 games during his freshman season, the Avalanche — his dad’s old team, which moved west in 1995 — made him their second-round selection in June 2005. He played one more season at Denver, making the WCHA First All-Star team, before turning pro.
The younger Stastny has looked right at home in the NHL, piling up 59 points in Colorado’s first 64 games, third among rookie scorers. He ended February with a 12-game points streak, the longest by a rookie since Teemu Selanne scored in as a member of the Winnipeg Jets in the final17 games of 1992-93.
While Paul Stastny couldn't match his dad’s franchise rookie scoring record, he did set the rookie mark for the team since its move to Denver.
"He's been great from the outset," coach Joel Quenneville told NHL.com. "You watch the things he does and it's pretty amazing that a young kid has that sense with and without the puck. His positioning is pretty amazing. He reminds me a lot of his dad. He's got the pedigree and plays in a similar way. For a young kid, to have that hockey sense, is unusual. He's going to be a nice player."