RALEIGH — There will be no playoff hockey for the Carolina Hurricanes this season.
Needing one final victory to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Hurricanes couldn't get it done Saturday. The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first period Saturday and scored a 6-2 victory, leaving the Canes a bitterly disappointed team.
The Hurricanes won 40 games this season. They had 91 points. They had gone 8-1-1 in their past 10 games before Saturday, including a 6-1 romp Friday over the Atlanta Thrashers, and were playing their best hockey of the season.
But the Hurricanes could not win the last game of the season, the biggest game of the season. A victory would have pushed them past the New York Rangers and secured the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference, but they appeared jumpy and jittery while the Lightning was a sharp, efficient team and Mike Smith more than solid in net with 42 saves.
"Everyone wanted this and every one of us wanted to be in the playoffs," said Canes captain Eric Staal, who played the last three weeks with a groin injury. "It's not a nice feeling in the stomach. We worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home and we didn't get the job done."
The Rangers took care of their business Saturday afternoon, ripping the New Jersey Devils 5-2. That gave New York 93 points and put the Canes in win-or-else position against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay, locked into fifth place in the NHL East, had nothing at stake. It seemingly was a tuneup for the playoffs, which begin next week, and the Bolts played without Victor Hedman and Ryan Malone.
"Tampa came ready to play," Canes goalie Cam Ward said. "They came here looking to spoil our playoff hopes and that's exactly what they did."
Cory Stillman scored on a 5-on-3 power play for the Canes in the second period. Stillman's shot glanced off the skate of Tampa Bay defenseman Eric Brewer and past Smith at 13:31, but Carolina trailed 4-0 by then.
Chad LaRose knocked in a shot at 8:33 of the third to close the gap to 4-2 and the Canes had other chances. They pulled Ward on a late power play for an sixth attacker, but empty net goals by Simon Gagne and Martin St. Louis sealed it for Tampa Bay.
"Chad's goal gave us some life but it wasn't enough," Staal said.
The Canes were given a standing ovation as they took the ice before the game. They had their scoring chances early, only to have Smith twice stop Erik Cole shots, and had three first-period power plays.
"I thought our jump was there, the energy in the building was there," Staal said.
Ward, playing his 74th game, made some quality saves in the first. But Dominic Moore scored at 6:45 on a rebound, and Vincent Lecavalier soon was off on a breakaway after a pass from St.Louis, beating Ward with a low shot.
Lecavalier's goal appeared to deflate the Canes. Certainly the crowd. Then Steven Stamkos blasted in a shot off the rush for his 45th of the season to push the lead to 3-0.
"I didn't feel the tension (early) but certainly it mounted as it got to (2-0)," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "Then we took a knockout punch and couldn't get off the mat."
So ended an unusual, memorable season, albeit one with a crushing end. It began in Finland, where the Canes twice beat the Minnesota Wild. The Hurricanes hosted the NHL All-Star Game, and Staal was an All-Star captain.
Ward, selected to play in the All-Star Game, had a career year, pushing past 2,000 saves. Jeff Skinner, the youngest player in the NHL, also was an All-Star, scored 31 goals and could win the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year.
Cole scored 26 goals, many of them clutch. Tuomo Ruutu had a solid year and such young players as defensemen Jamie McBain and Derek Joslin gained valuable experience.
The Hurricanes' final record was 40-31-11. But it was a tough way to end it
"Especially when you seen them give so much and fight so hard to get there," Maurice said. "The more you invest in something, the more painful it should be when it goes away from you.
"Still we'd much rather have been in a 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, and that was possible. I thought that was the feel of our whole season with a number of the elements we dealt with: it was survive and stay in the fight as long as you could. And we did that."
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