RALEIGH — When you let your season come down to this, when you leave yourself no margin for error and let your playoff chances hang in the balance until the very end - and do it nearly every single year - a bouncing shot that deflects off two of your own players can end your season. Just like that.
The Carolina Hurricanes' season isn't over, but it's awfully close. It was bad enough that the Hurricanes let Sunday's game against the Buffalo Sabres get to overtime in the first place. It was worse that they lost when Marc-Andre Gragnani's shot hit first Jeff Skinner and then Tim Gleason on its way into the net.
It was not a pretty shot, the epitome of the old hockey cliché that "if you shoot the puck at the net, good things happen." And for the Hurricanes, it was the worst happening of all.
Sunday's back-breaking 2-1 loss to the Sabres was a festival of missed opportunities: The Hurricanes missed their chance to move past the Sabres into eighth place and control their own destiny over the final three games; they went 0-for-6 on the power play, including 61 seconds of two-man advantage; they peppered the net in the third period only to be stopped by Jhonas Enroth or, all too often, miss the net entirely.
Better teams don't let it come down to bounces. Or bad calls, for that matter, not that the Hurricanes could complain in that department Sunday with all the power-play chances they had.
So much was lost Sunday. This was a playoff game in everything but name and date. There was as much on the line, the parking lots were crowded with tailgaters, and the tension on the ice was exquisite.
Above all else, even though the winner wasn't assured of anything, the loser was going to be in tough, tough shape going forward. And that's where the Hurricanes are now.
The Sabres are three points ahead with three to play and hold the tiebreaker edge on the Hurricanes. Even if the Hurricanes win out, against the Detroit Red Wings, Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning, they may not be able to catch Buffalo or the New York Rangers, who are two points ahead.
A regulation win Sunday, on the other hand, would have put the Hurricanes in eighth place, ahead of the Sabres and in full control of their destiny.
Their season hung on this game, and now it's hanging by a very thin thread.
There's nothing unusual about this. Since moving to North Carolina, the Hurricanes have finished in ninth place three times and missed the playoffs by four or fewer points four times. (They also finished eighth once, getting in on a tiebreaker.) Paul Maurice and Virginia Tech basketball coach Seth Greenberg should exchange Christmas cards.
The Hurricanes' unofficial mission statement has always been, "if you get into the playoffs, anything can happen." While there's something sad about a tacit endorsement of life on the playoff bubble, with Cam Ward in goal, there's some validity to it.
But you have to get there first, and that isn't easy with an undersized payroll. At this moment, Ward's on top of his game, and yet he once again may be denied the opportunity to demonstrate that on the game's biggest stage.
To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, the Hurricanes are on pace for 90 points and ninth place. They had a chance to change that destiny Sunday, and it was one of so many chances they let slip away.