The Canes, seeking their third trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 2002, were swept by the defending conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins, falling 4-1 Tuesday night in a season-ending contest.
Carolina was outscored 20-9 in the series and led for just 21 of 240 minutes, losing six of its last seven postseason games after starting 7-4 against New Jersey and Boston.
“The difficult part about tonight is the finality,” said coach Paul Maurice. “We’ve been in playoff mode for the better part of three months, it’s your life, and it’s not going to be there tomorrow. It’s easy if you don’t invest anything.”
“It is going to take a couple of days to process everything that went on this season, but there is a lot of fight in this room and a lot of character and a lot of good guys, and right now it just doesn’t feel very nice knowing that tomorrow we’re all done,” said Eric Staal.
Not even holding Cane killer Evgeni Malkin without a point was enough to save the Canes from elimination on this night against one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, and Marc-Andre Fleury was able to outperform Cam Ward, who lost his first playoff series after starting his career 6-0.
Maurice said the previous two series may have mentally drained Carolina and prevented his team from performing at a high level against the Pens, who head back to the Cup finals for a second straight season.
“Pittsburgh played well, but I don’t think we had a lot left in the tank,” Maurice said. “We had gone to the well a lot of times and spent a lot to get here, and earned the right to be here. But in reading faces coming back to the bench, even when we scored goals to tighten it up, we had spent an awful lot.”
Carolina failed to score on four power-play chances in Game 4, and went 0-10 with the man advantage over the final three games, dooming any hope of a comeback in the series.
“I don’t think we did ourselves any favors by getting down three games and not having our best, and if you don’t have your best at this time of the year you are going to be out pretty quick,” Staal said.
The Canes trailed 3-1 for the second straight home game heading into the third period. But Carolina couldn’t convert on yet another power play opportunity early in the final period as the Pens clamped down on defense and eventually scored their third empty-net goal of the series, outscoring the Canes 10-3 at the RBC Center after splitting the four-game regular-season series.
“Those are the guys you want to go out on the ice with and compete with and we did that for the better part of three months and that’s why it hurts a little bit more right now,” Staal said.
The Canes jumped out to an early lead for the second straight home game as Staal snapped his scoring slump with a wraparound goal 1:36 in, but following a familiar pattern Carolina ended the opening 20 minutes down 2-1.
And once again the Canes allowed a late goal, this one coming on a flutter shot from Maxime Talbot in the slot that deflected off a Carolina defenseman and eluded the glove of Ward with 1:29 left in the period.
“The puck hit his skate and I lost sight of it for a split second and it was a bad break, a fluke goal,” Ward said.
“We tried to stay positive (after the goal) but it’s tough when a bounce goes like that,” added Chad LaRose.
“When you are getting to desperate times you’re almost looking for that sign, you’re trying to manufacture things,” added Maurice. “It never came.”
The Pens went up by two goals with 7:50 left in the second period as a Carolina power play expired. Anton Babchuk tried to glove down a puck at the Pens’ blue line, but turned the puck over as Pittsburgh broke out 3-on-2, with Sidney Crosby feeding Bill Guerin for the key score.
“Any time you come up short like this it’s disappointing and you’re going to leave not satisfied,” Ward said. “I would like to change it but I can’t.”
“It is what it is and we’re going home – with nothing,” added LaRose.
“There are no flukes in a seven-game series, they deserved to win,” Maurice said of Pittsburgh.NOTES: Babchuk dressed for the first time this series, replacing Frank Kaberle. … Tuomo Ruutu missed Game 4 with a lower body injury after playing less than 10 minutes Saturday night. … It was the first time since 1989 that the franchise was swept in a playoff series. That occurred against Montreal in the division semifinal. … Staal finished with 10 playoff goals, one better than he scored in 2006. … Pittsburgh blocked 43 shots over the last two games. … The Canes were outscored 30-14 over their last seven playoff games. … Carolina was 7-0 in the playoffs when Staal scored before tonight’s loss. … Ray Whitney didn’t score a goal over his last 11 playoff games.