RALEIGH — Of all the times the Carolina Hurricanes have narrowly missed the playoffs, this will go down as the most uncomfortable. Twice they had their destiny in their hands. Twice they tossed it away.
There's no excuse for losing at home in the two biggest games of the season.
If last Sunday's overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres was bad, at least the Hurricanes were competitive. The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped out to a three-goal lead in less than 14 minutes on its way to a 6-2 win Saturday.
Someone's going to have to answer for this. Surely it will be coach Paul Maurice, who hasn't taken a team he has coached for a full season to the NHL playoffs since 2002 and who cannot account for a loss Saturday that cost the franchise millions of dollars.
No matter how highly owner Peter Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford regard Maurice, even they must see that it's time for a change. Maurice is a good man and a good coach, but the past two seasons haven't measured up, and Saturday's flat-line with everything on the line defies explanation.
"Jim will make his assessment," Maurice said. "I'm very proud of the way this team performed this year in the situations it faced - the youth, the schedule. I think in a lot of ways we'll look back at this as a great year."
By the expectations of September, just being in the playoff hunt counts as a significant accomplishment for this team. By the expectations of December, or March or April for that matter, falling short is a colossal disappointment.
Coming into the season, before anyone knew how good Jeff Skinner would be or that Cam Ward would stay healthy from start to finish or any of the other surprises this team had in store, just finishing .500 seemed ambitious.
Knowing all of that now, it's clear this team had enough talent - and enough chances - to make the playoffs, only to fall short when it counted most.
Missing the playoffs cost the Hurricanes millions. It cost the franchise all the momentum it built - locally, nationally and internationally - with its star turn as host of the NHL All-Star Game.
It cost the young players this team will be built around in the future invaluable postseason experience.
The Hurricanes would have played the Washington Capitals, forever adding postseason juice to a rivalry currently built on proximity and familiarity to the eternal benefit of both franchises.
The Hurricanes had, essentially, two "win and you're in" one-game playoffs.
They lost both.
For the fourth time since moving to North Carolina in 1997, the Hurricanes will finish atop the also-rans. Ninth place is the worst. There's no playoff berth and no high draft pick. It's NHL purgatory, where mediocrity is reinforced.
Maurice did a great job taking over for Peter Laviolette in 2009, no question about it. Since then, he has missed the playoffs twice - once with an expensive, veteran team and once with a cheaper, younger team. Whatever his merits, it's time for a change.
Maybe Ron Francis would like to try his hand. Maybe Jeff Daniels is ready. Maybe Tom Barrasso could bring a little fire to the bench. Or maybe someone else: The last time Rutherford hired a coach from outside of his comfort zone, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup 21/2 years later.
That can all be settled later, once the dust settles from a season that exceeded initial expectations, yet still ended far sooner than it should have.