RALEIGH, N.C. - The stage was set for the Carolina Hurricanes to cruise back into the playoffs. They were playing their regular-season finale in front of a rowdy bunch of Caniacs, needed a victory against a Florida team that hadn't won in Raleigh in more than five-plus years and even jumped out to an early lead.
Then the Panthers came back with a vengeance. And when Carolina couldn't conjure up yet another third-period rally against them, its best chance to return to the post-season was dashed.
That disheartening 4-3 loss to the nothing-to-play-for Panthers on Friday night - coupled with the coup de grace, Washington's 3-1 victory against Florida on Saturday night - has the Hurricanes out of the playoffs for the second straight year since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. Instead, the Southeast Division, the No. 3 seed and the last spot in the Eastern Conference went to the Capitals.
Perhaps most distressing to Carolina's players was this: they felt they should have never lost control of their playoff future.
"We had everything in our hands before the game," veteran defenceman Glen Wesley said after the loss to Florida.
Instead, with no practices scheduled for Saturday or Sunday, the Hurricanes were resigned to spending the weekend lamenting their late-season collapse and fruitlessly watching the scoreboard.
The Capitals denied their already-slim last chance at the post-season, a situation created after the Hurricanes frittered away the five-point lead they had with six games left and lost three of four to end the season.
Their last loss might have been the most disconcerting, because they had everything to play for.
Carolina took an early 1-0 lead on Trevor Letowski's goal, but couldn't make it stand. The Hurricanes finished with 46 shots to Florida's 17 - including an 11-1 advantage in the third period. They took no penalties and had nine power plays - including two 5-on-3s - and were 2-for-9 with the man advantage but also gave up a crucial short-handed goal.
"Just couldn't seem to get the shots through or come up with the rebound, or they were just wide, or blocked," coach Peter Laviolette said. "The passing wasn't real crisp at times, but there were still lots of opportunities at times offensively. We just couldn't get to the back of the net enough, and we'd come down the other end and it would be in ours."
Indeed, the Panthers came up with perhaps the biggest goal of the game when they were a man down: Radek Dvorak got past a falling-down Matt Cullen and beat Cam Ward with a wrist shot with 12 seconds left in the second. That gave Florida its second two-goal lead of the game.
"That's the way it is any time a team's out of the playoffs and one's playing one game to get in," Carolina centre Eric Staal said. "They were loose, and when they had those breaks, they had those chances, they buried them."
Sergei Samsonov scored on the power play with about 12 minutes left in the third to pull the Hurricanes within one, but that was it for Carolina, which got plenty of shots against backup goalie Craig Anderson - who took over when starter Tomas Vokoun left after one period with back spasms.
Anderson stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced in the final 40 minutes to seal his team's first victory here since December 2002.
"As a group, we certainly, I thought, didn't get enough great performances from a lot of people," left wing Ray Whitney said.
That could include Ward. Making his career-most 20th straight start, he finished with just 13 saves and allowed four goals. He gave up two goals on five shots in the first.
"I'm sick about it. It's not a good feeling," Laviolette said. "There's not a good feeling about it. Nothing positive to take from (that game). We needed to win a game to be in charge of winning a division, stay with home ice in the playoffs. And we lost. It's gut-wrenching."