DeCock: Canes done too soon, but the future is bright

ldecock@newsobserver.comMarch 30, 2012 

— As the first period came to an end, the Carolina Hurricanes left the ice to a standing ovation. They had given up an early goal but fought back to take a lead into the first intermission, and their fans let them know they appreciated the effort.

Small victories. As the season winds down, that’s all that the Hurricanes have left.

With a 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, the Hurricanes were officially eliminated from playoff contention. It took the Jets all of 16 seconds to run the Hurricanes’ overtime record to 3-16 and put their final postseason hopes to the sword.

There are four games yet to be played, but they are now officially meaningless. The Hurricanes have known for weeks, months even, that the playoffs were not in their future, but they stubbornly refused to relinquish hope. Friday, it was relinquished for them. There’s no arguing with the math.

Stubbornness has been a characteristic of this team under Kirk Muller, as has drive and belief and effort. Friday demonstrated all of that: The early goal, by Nik Antropov, was a backbreaker, and the Hurricanes were sloppy at best afterward. Yet there was no sense of panic, or even concern, and Derek Joslin, of all people, evened the score -- a rough-and-tumble defenseman playing out of position at forward, in front of the net for Jeff Skinner to find with a pinpoint pass.

And then it fell to Eric Staal, as it has so often in the second half of the season. After Blake Wheeler goaded Tim Gleason into a double minor by refusing to drop the gloves when invited, Staal stole the puck from Wheeler at the blue line, went down to the other end, pulled up short and beat Chris Mason.

Early in the season, that Antropov goal would have meant lights out. Friday, even when everything wasn’t clicking, the Hurricanes stuck with it. That’s the good. The bad: The Hurricanes blew a 3-1 lead and once again couldn’t buy an overtime win. This one would have kept them alive.

Afterward, with the circumstances of the defeat still ringing in his ears, Muller prepared to wrap up his press conference. The game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres still had 10 minutes to run, and had the Hurricanes won in regulation or overtime, it would have meant something. Muller was asked if he’d still go back to his office to watch the conclusion.

“Yeah, we’ll catch the end of it,” Muller said. “See how it goes.”

He’s just a spectator now, same as the rest of his team. There are still four games left, but the season ended Friday night.

Last year, when the Hurricanes’ season came to an abrupt end -- when they lost at home when a win would have gotten them into the playoffs -- there was a sense of finality.

Friday, there was disappointment, but there was nothing abrupt about it. The players have seen this coming for months. The numbers finally caught up with reality, that’s all.

Most of this group will be together next year, from the coaches on down. Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu could have left, but they’ll be back. Really, only Bryan Allen’s situation is uncertain at this point, and it’s easy to see him staying.

“Now,” defenseman Jay Harrison said, “we look forward.”

The future is ahead of this team. Even on the night this season came to an end, next season remained on everyone’s mind.

DeCock: or 919-829-8947

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