Needing a win to secure their place in the postseason on Saturday night at the RBC Center, the Canes instead succumbed to a 6-2 decision at the hands of the already-playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning, ending their season much earlier than they had hoped. The Lightning took a three-goal lead in the first period, which was all they would need despite the Canes cutting the deficit to 4-2 in the third.
For the Canes, whose season looked to be nearly over a week ago before they regained control of their own fate in the final days, the rollercoaster ride ended at the wrong time.
“Over the last three weeks we played our best hockey of the year, and that’s what winning teams do,” said Brandon Sutter. “When it came down to the point where we got the control back in our favor to kind of control our destiny, we come out in the first period and have a couple of things go against us. We never really quit.”
“We worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home and we didn’t get the job done tonight,” said captain Eric Staal.
Fresh off a 6-1 win in Atlanta the previous night, the Canes seemed to have all the momentum they needed to get over the final hump and qualify for the postseason for the first time since the 2009 run to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Tampa Bay’s stunning start, featuring goals by Dominic Moore, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos in the first 13:17 of the game, brought the Canes’ surge to a screeching halt.
Moore’s goal to open the scoring came just after the Canes had killed a Lighting power play, while the other two came on a breakaway and a two-on-one rush as the Canes began to unravel.
“I think there was a chance that we were shocked at 3-0,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “It was not the pressure. We felt right going out, had come off a good night and felt good and then, boom, it happened so fast that you’re shell shocked a little bit. Then the enormity of how much you put into it and where it’s at, that made it difficult for us.”
“They’ve got guys that break loose and fly out of the zone that have a lot of skill and can put the puck in the net,” said Canes goalie Cam Ward, who finished with 29 saves. “They cashed in on their opportunities in the first period and it was a pretty big hole to come out of.”
There was a chance that the Canes could have punched their ticket to the postseason before the drop of the puck, but the New York Rangers changed that with their win over the New Jersey Devils earlier in the day. That meant that Carolina came into the game knowing that they needed two points to keep up.
“I didn’t feel the tension, but certainly it mounted as it got to two (goals against),” said Maurice. “Simple things became difficult to do.”
The Hurricanes had their chances to answer the Lightning’s strong start, including three power plays before the first period ended. However, Tampa got several key saves from goalie Mike Smith in an eventual 42-save performance and would make it 4-0 through a Brett Clark goal midway through the second period before the home team had a chance to respond.
“I thought we settled at (3-0) for a bit, and really at that point needed one of those (chances) to go,” said Maurice. “We had a few real good looks in on their ‘tender, he made some good saves and that was the difference. That block between three and them scoring four was our chance to crawl back into it.”
The Canes did manage to cut the lead to two goals through a five-on-three goal by Cory Stillman just minutes after Clark’s tally and a Chad LaRose goal midway through the third. However, the Canes couldn’t break through for any more offense, with the Lightning tacking on two empty-net goals as Maurice pulled Ward for the extra attacker on a power play with 3:08 left on the clock.
“In the third with Rosey’s goal you could really feel the energy level pick up, but we couldn’t get it together enough,” said Erik Cole.
“We didn’t give up, we gave ourselves a chance with the opportunities that we had but we just couldn’t seem to find the net enough to win,” said Ward.
The Hurricanes will now have the summer to reflect on a season that began with two wins overseas, continued with the successful hosting of an All-Star Game, saw the breakout success of 18-year-old Jeff Skinner and the rollercoaster finish that so nearly resulted in a return to the postseason that many though was further away than it really was.
“The more you invest in something, the more painful it should be when it goes away from you,” said Maurice. “I still would much rather have been in a position where we fought as hard as we could to get to this point and have to go through the pain of the result than letting it slip away a month ago, and that was possible. I thought that was almost the general feel of our whole season with a number of the elements that we dealt with. It was survive and stay in the fight as long as you possibly could, and we did it.”
“I liked the energy and excitement in our locker room,” said Staal. “I thought we competed extremely hard every single game and every single practice. From the top down we competed, and that’s all you can ask for.”
NOTES: After the game, Maurice revealed that Staal suffered a groin injury three weeks ago that worsened to the point where he was nearly unable to play … Prior to winning his last two starts at the RBC Center in the last two weeks, Smith was winless in nine appearances vs. Carolina … Canes defenseman Tim Gleason took two shifts in the third period, playing a season-low 12:54 … Staal won all nine of his faceoffs in the first period and finished 20-12 … Simon Gagne scored 7 of his 17 goals on the season in the six-game season series with Carolina … Carolina had seven players play all 82 games for the team … Prior to finishing 1-7 on the power play tonight, the Canes had converted at a 33.3 percent clip against Tampa this season … Carolina fell to 14-6-2 in their last 22 games with the Lightning ... Every skater int he Lightning lineup finished with a positive plus/minus rating.