SUNRISE, Fla. — Short of raising the Stanley Cup in victory, there probably is no painless way to end an NHL season.
Playoffs, regular season, early, late ... it stings whenever the season comes to an end.
A year ago, the Carolina Hurricanes went into the final game of the regular season needing a victory to reach the playoffs. A 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, on home ice, crushed everyone.
This year, the Hurricanes were eliminated from playoff contention last Friday at PNC Arena in an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets. There still were four games to be played before tonight’s finale against the Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m., FSCR), enough to test the players’ resolve.
“It’s tough either way,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “To miss last year by one (victory) was disappointing, to be that close. Then to have the start we did this year, we dug ourselves a hole.
“On the positive side, we’ve played well the last couple of months and hopefully are building toward something next year and hopefully the years after that.”
Skinner, 19, was the NHL’s rookie of the year last season. Now, another year will pass without a taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“At the end of the day, we were out both years, so it’s equally tough,” Skinner said. “It’s a feeling you don’t want to have again.”
The Canes were 8-13-4 on Nov. 27 after a 4-3 road loss to the Ottawa Senators – Paul Maurice’s last game as coach. Kirk Muller was hired as coach and lost his first four games, but the Canes have gone 25-15-12 since a 7-6 road loss to the Calgary Flames on Dec. 6.
“With Kirk’s system, there was a little learning experience,” forward Jussi Jokinen said. “He’s fair. He demands a lot of his players, and if you don’t play well, you don’t play a lot. But he’s fair.”
The Panthers (37-26-18) made wholesale changes – including the firing of coach Peter DeBoer and the hiring of Kevin Dineen – after last season and have made a dramatic turnaround.
Florida clinched a playoff spot Thursday when the Buffalo Sabres were beaten by the Philadelphia Flyers, and with a victory today at BankAtlantic Center could go from worst to first in the Southeast Division.
The Panthers aren’t surging into the playoffs. They have just one regulation victory in their last eight games. But they are in the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
The Hurricanes (33-32-16) won their final home game Thursday in thrilling fashion. Goaltender Cam Ward did not allow a shootout goal and captain Eric Staal scored the winner for a 2-1 victory.
Muller said Friday that the Montreal game was Ward’s last start of the season – backup Brian Boucher will be in goal today.
The Canes will have a new face in the lineup. Union College forward Jeremy Welsh signed a one-year contract with Carolina on Thursday night after Union’s loss to Ferris State in the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa.
Welsh, 23, will be paid $832,500 on the NHL level and $70,000 on the AHL level. The Bayfield, Ont., native received a signing bonus of $92,500.
“Big forward,” Muller said of Welsh, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds and scored 27 goals in 40 games this season. “He plays a power game. He plays a game where he wants to be physical. He wants to be on the puck, he’s aggressive.
“He quarterbacked the power play on the point, but what I like is his size and his physical presence.”
It has been quite an eventful week for Welsh, losing out on a chance to win a national championship with his college team and then making his NHL debut in a span of three days.
“I’m sure he’s going through an emotional rollercoaster,” Muller said.
He should fit in with the Canes pretty well.