On Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes' inspired run to the cusp of playoff qualification ended earlier than anticipated, as the Tampa Bay Lightning rode three first period goals and solid play from goaltender Mike Smith to a 6-2 win in Raleigh, eliminating the Hurricanes from postseason play.
The New York Rangers set the stage Saturday afternoon for the Canes' final push to the playoffs with a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils. The win meant the Canes were in charge of their own destiny, needing two points to tie the Rangers. The tiebreaker situation would have put Carolina in eighth place, ahead of New York thanks to the Canes' two-point edge in the teams' head-to-head during the season.
Coming off a six-goal night in Atlanta, coach Paul Maurice said the issue in the first period wasn't his team's, but the speed of the opponent, that led to the early deficit.
"The bench didn't seem like it was going to have a problem with it," Maurice said of his team's resilience after Dominic Moore's goal in the seventh minute to put the Lightning up 1-0. "It felt right going out and had come off a good night and boom. It happened so fast. You're shell-shocked."
Captain Eric Staal also noted the opposition's speed, especially since Tampa Bay's playoff spot was already locked up. The Lightning had already clinched the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
"That game meant nothing to them and they were flying into the zone and making plays," Staal said. "They've got some offensive skill to make you pay and they did that early on."
Goaltender Cam Ward said getting knocked back in the first period presented too tall a task for the Canes to come back.
"They came here looking to spoil our playoff hopes and that's what they did. Maybe some other teams wouldn't have played that hard knowing that their position was safe, but they played us really tough in that first period," he said. "It was a pretty big hole to come out of. We just couldn't seem to find the net enough to win."
Maurice equated the three-goal first period to a "knockout punch."
Staal said the loss was particularly hard to swallow after the team won nine of its last twelve games to set up the win-or-go-home situation. "We worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home and we didn't get the job done tonight," he said.
Jussi Jokinen said last year's unlikely near trip to the playoffs made this year's early end more difficult to cope with as well, since last year's push came from so far back and this year presented the Canes with several chances to clinch.
"The last three or four weeks we played really good hockey," he said. "But it's tough to stay out and win."
Despite making the loss hurt that much more, Maurice said having his team's postseason hopes end in the final game of the season was better than being eliminated in March.
"I still would much rather have been in the situation 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," he said.
If the past week's run to the threshold of the NHL playoffs put the wind in the sails of Hurricanes fans, the first period against the Lightning ripped those sails to shreds. The Lightning outshot the Canes 18-12 despite three Carolina power-play chances.
And while Lightning goalie Mike Smith had his hands full turning away quality tries from the Canes, his teammates found ways to put the pressure on his Carolina counterpart. Dominic Moore put his 18th goal of the season in the net in the seventh minute and captain Vincent LeCavalier followed in the 12th.
Then, despite a scrum in front of Smith's crease, Steven Stamkos took a pass from Teddy Purcell on a two-on-one in transition and put the visitors up 3-0, stunning the home crowd.
"The tension mounted as it got to two and then simple things became difficult to do," Maurice said.
The second period brought more of the same, as Lightning defenseman Brett Clark pushed another fastbreak and launched the puck topshelf over Cam Ward's left shoulder to put the Hurricanes in a 4-0 hole with a little more than eight minutes to go, but Maurice said following the game that the comeback window had already closed.
"We settled at three for a bit," Maurice said. "That block between [them] scoring three and four was our chance to crawl back in it."
Carolina finally lit up the siren at the 6:29 mark on a 5-on-3 power play, with Corey Stillman directing the puck into the net through traffic for his 12th goal of the season.
The Canes got a new lease on their playoff hopes in the third period, as Chad LaRose notched his 16th goal of the season with 11:27 remaining on a pass from Brandon Sutter, but empty net goals in the closing minutes put to rest the Canes' shots at a win and the postseason.