RALEIGH – It all came down to this. Eight months of preparation, hard work, and commitment all led to one final regular season game.
The scenario was simple. Win, and they’re in. Lose, and they’re out. Sixty minutes of hockey separated the Carolina Hurricanes from two extreme circumstances: playoffs or elimination.
To the dismay of the sold-out crowd at the RBC Center, the latter was the case Saturday night. The Hurricanes fell 6-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, ending Carolina’s season.
The Hurricanes outshot the Bolts 44-35, but it was to no avail. Mike Smith was stellar in net for the Lightning, earning the first star of the game. One cannot help but wonder how this game would have turned out had the Lightning — who had nothing to gain from tonight’s contest — rested Smith in favor of their backup.
The Lightning came storming out of the gate, scoring three times in the first 13:17 of play. Even though Tampa Bay had already secured the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, they played with the same intensity as they would for any other game, earning a franchise record 46th win.
The Hurricanes eventually cut the lead to 4-2, but two empty net goals by the Bolts took the remaining wind out of Carolina’s sails.
As the clock struck midnight on the Hurricanes’ season, the remaining fans at the RBC Center rose to their feet and gave the hometown team a standing ovation. “Let’s go Hurricanes” chants rained down from the seats, as the crowd showed an admirable amount of appreciation for their club.
From opening weekend in Finland, to the emergence of Jeff Skinner, to the All-Star weekend, to the retiring of Rod Brind’Amour’s number, to the nail-biting chase for eighth place, this year was as entertaining as any hockey enthusiast can hope for.
Given the situation, it would have been easy for the fans to boo, but Caniacs know better. The future is bright in Raleigh, and the locals know it. A season that began with so much uncertainty and skepticism has led to so much promise; not just for next year, but long into the future.
Skinner became an All-Star and 30 goal scorer before his 20th birthday. Eric Staal has shown he’s not only a premier center, but a remarkable leader as well. Cam Ward made more saves than any goalie in franchise history, cementing his reputation as one of the league’s best at his position.
This is a team on the rise, there’s no doubt about it.
Building a contender in the NHL is a process that requires a lot of patience. Carolina is not the type of organization that can buy their way to success; winning here will take time. While making the playoffs would have been rewarding for the Hurricanes, the outcome of tonight’s game does not take away from all the positive steps this team has taken in 2010-11.
The Hurricanes gained 11 more points in the standings than they did in 2009-10; a significant improvement given the few changes made to Coach Maurice’s roster.
There is a lot work ahead for General Manager Jim Rutherford this off-season, that’s for sure. A top priority will be fixing a defense that allowed more shots on goal than any team in the league. The core is there, but the puzzle is missing a few pieces. If Rutherford can add a strong blueliner or two to his roster, the Hurricanes might become an elite team faster than many may think.