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Brutal 5-week stretch dooms Hurricanes to 4th straight early summer with no playoffs

Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Staal (11), Jared Staal, second from left, Tuomo Ruutu (15), of Finland, and Eric Staal (12) watch from the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, April 25, 2013. The Hurricanes can't seem to figure out how to play well for a full season — even one that's only 48 games long.For the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven seasons, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gerry Broome

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Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Staal (11), Jared Staal, second from left, Tuomo Ruutu (15), of Finland, and Eric Staal (12) watch from the bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, April 25, 2013. The Hurricanes can't seem to figure out how to play well for a full season — even one that's only 48 games long.For the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven seasons, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Gerry Broome

RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes can't seem to figure out how to play well for a full season—even one that's only 48 games long.

For the fourth straight year and sixth time in seven seasons, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs.

And once again, a serious slump was to blame.

An injury-riddled stretch in which they earned only three points in five weeks sent them tumbling from the Southeast Division lead and doomed them to yet another early off-season.

Carolina went 1-13-1 from March 14-April 11 and set a club record with eight consecutive home losses.

"Ultimately, the simplest explanation is that we just didn't play well enough over a stretch in which we had to, and we didn't limit the losses when we needed to," defenceman Jay Harrison said Monday. "That's the tale of the tape."

Those struggles were magnified by a lockout-shortened season that left the Hurricanes much less time than usual to recover, so once they hit that tailspin, their season was effectively done.

Carolina wrapped up the year with an 8-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday night and ended in 13th place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points.

Since the Hurricanes' last playoff appearance in 2009, every team in the East except the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise has reached the post-season.

There were several bright spots, chiefly the emergence of Jiri Tlusty on the left wing of a productive top line that also included captain Eric Staal and key off-season acquisition Alexander Semin. Tlusty led the team with a career-high 23 goals.

"It was just working for us," Tlusty said.

But a handful of important teammates missed significant time with injuries. Forward Tuomo Ruutu missed the first 29 games after having hip surgery, team MVP Justin Faulk was out nine games with a sprained knee and defenceman Joni Pitkanen missing the final 13 with a broken left heel.

But no injury was more significant than the one to goalie Cam Ward, who sprained his left knee in a win March 3 at Florida.

It wasn't the only reason Carolina hit the skids—"There's other areas we just weren't good enough," Ward said—but it was certainly the most noticeable.

At the time, the Hurricanes had a four-point lead in the division. The free fall started 11 days later.

On March 14, Carolina blew a 2-0 lead to division rival Washington and lost 3-2. That started a spiral in which it dropped 14 of 15 games and plunged to within two points of last place in the conference.

"A frustrating and helpless feeling," Ward said. "As a goaltender and as a guy on this team for many years, you want to be out there helping your teammates, and to see them going through the struggles was tough."

During that stretch, it seemed every mistake the Hurricanes made wound up in their own net. And by the time they snapped that cold spell by beating Boston on April 13, they had been all but eliminated from the playoff race.

It was a significant missed opportunity because realignment is about to make things much tougher on them.

The Hurricanes are leaving arguably the league's weakest division—the East's three worst teams all reside in the Southeast—for perhaps its strongest.

Next season Carolina will be in a division with Pittsburgh, the East's top seed; both playoff-bound New York teams; Philadelphia; New Jersey and Washington. The Hurricanes' payroll of $57.2 million this year would place them sixth among those seven teams.

And next year, Jordan Staal's 10-year, $60 million contract takes effect after he made $4.5 million in the final year of his existing deal. The Hurricanes also committed $34 million over the next six years to Jeff Skinner and $35 million over the next five seasons to Semin.

It's unclear what the roster will look like when training camp begins in the fall. Among the potential unrestricted free agents are forwards Chad LaRose and Tim Brent; defencemen Joe Corvo, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Bobby Sanguinetti; and backup goalie Dan Ellis.

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Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at (at)JoedyAP.

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