RALEIGH, N.C. — If the Pittsburgh Penguins fail to make the playoffs or limp in with an unenviable seed, they won’t have to think hard to figure out why.
They’ve done a miserable job of holding leads late in the season.
Justin Williams tied the score in the final two minutes of regulation, and the Carolina Hurricanes recorded a 3-2 shootout victory Tuesday night.
The Penguins blew a lead late in the third period and lost beyond regulation for the fourth time in their past 13 games. They’re 1-3 in shootouts this season.
“It’s obviously something we need to get better at, especially in these tight games,” defenseman Jack Johnson said. “It’s definitely something we need to improve on.”
Williams scored the tying goal off an offensive-zone faceoff with 1 minute, 56 seconds to go.
Hockey coaches often talk about winning a faceoff being a team effort, and this was one of those occasions. Sidney Crosby actually won the draw from Jordan Staal, but Carolina’s Nino Niederreiter stepped in front of Matt Cullen to collect the loose puck in the circle and pass back to Dougie Hamilton in the high slot.
Hamilton’s shot appeared to bounce off the heel of goalie Matt Murray’s glove hand. Hamilton cleaned up the rebound just before Kris Letang could disrupt his shot with his stick.
All four late-game tying goals the Penguins have given up have come under different circumstances. There was a deflected shot from the blue line in Buffalo, a bad-angle shot from the corner through a defenseman’s legs in the outdoor game and a four-on-two break Sunday night against Philadelphia before the latest debacle.
The lack of a unifying thread between the goals makes it hard for coach Mike Sullivan to propose solutions.
“They’re all different,” Sullivan said. “This one was off a faceoff. It was a scramble. The puck’s bouncing everywhere. It’s not like we can identify one thing. We’d like to believe we can defend leads better. We have in the past and have been very good at it. So I know we’re capable.”
The one constant, of course, is Murray.
“Each time, there’s been one little mistake and I’ve got to make the save,” Murray said. “That’s pretty much what it comes down to.”
The loser point moved the third-place Penguins to within two points of the second-place New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division standings, but things are bunching up behind them. The Penguins are two points ahead of fourth-place Carolina and six points up on ninth-place Montreal in the race for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
In a race this tight, the Penguins are going to be in a position where they have to protect a one-goal lead again, probably sometime soon. Sullivan said he feels his team in general, and Murray in particular, will not lack confidence when the situation arises.
“This team, they’re a battle-tested group,” Sullivan said. “They’ve been through a lot. I don’t worry about that.”
Before Williams’ goal, the Penguins broke a 1-1 tie when Letang, making his return to the lineup after missing 11 games with an upper-body injury, scored on an odd-man rush with less than five minutes to play.
Jake Guentzel scored in the second period, tying the score 38 seconds after Carolina had taken a 1-0 lead.
After Williams’ goal, the Penguins killed two penalties: one in the final two minutes of regulation and another in the final two minutes of overtime.
Hamilton had the only successful attempt in the shootout. Petr Mrazek stopped Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Guentzel.
“It’s not good, obviously, but we’ve got to take the positives out of it,” Murray said. “We played well. It’s tough. It’s heart-breaking, but we’ve got to get the next one.”