RALEIGH — There is no next best thing. In the NHL, you either make the playoffs or you dont. The gap between the two is titanic: Black and white, success or failure.
For a team like the Carolina Hurricanes which had a chance to make the playoffs, but spent the first two months of the season asleep and left itself with no margin for error down the stretch, only to err too much a chance to knock the Florida Panthers out of the playoffs on Saturday was all that was left.
And even thats off the table now, although through no fault of the Hurricanes. The Philadelphia Flyers took care of that with a win over the Buffalo Sabres, letting the Panthers into the playoffs through the back door, while the Hurricanes celebrated their final home game of the season with their first shootout win of the season.
The 2-1 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens ended an 0-for-6 skid on the year, with Eric Staal scoring on the final attempt after former Hurricanes forward Erik Cole rang his shot off the post.
Hows that for fan appreciation?
The game wasnt much to watch the sleepy first period was a waste of perfectly good ice but at least Chad LaRose scored his 19th goal, bringing him to the brink of 20 and a new career high. So theres that to keep an eye on Saturday, with only Staal and Jeff Skinner cracking that mark this season so far.
Thats whats on the line Saturday. There was even less on the line Thursday, with the Canadiens in even worse shape in the standings than the Hurricanes.
The honors awarded may have been more important than the result: For Eric Staal, the teams Steve Chiasson Award for the first time, as well as his third MVP honor from the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Assocation; for Jay Harrison, already nominated for the Masterton Trophy by the local PHWA chapter, the newly renamed Josef Vasicek Award for cooperation with the media.
Vasicek, who died at 30 in September in a plane crash in Russia, never won that award in his six seasons with the Hurricanes, but his cheerful demeanor and eagerness to cooperate with the media epitomized what the honor represents. Vasiceks death came not long after longtime arena superintendent Donnie MacMillian passed away suddenly over the summer, beginning a season of loss and remembrance that finally ended Thursday.
That was merely the final home game, and there is still one game yet to be played. Thanks to the Sabres loss on Thursday, which clinched a spot for the Panthers, that last game has no meaning at all.
For a moment, it looked like the Hurricanes might have the opportunity to shove Sean Bergenheims mocking golf swing back in his face, a taunt delivered when the Panthers last visited Raleigh on March 21.
Under slightly different circumstances, the Hurricanes might have had a chance to repay the Panthers for keeping the Hurricanes out of the playoffs in 2008 by keeping Florida out of the playoffs for an 11th straight year, but results elsewhere conspired to nudge the Panthers into the playoffs no matter what happens Saturday against the Hurricanes.
So thats it, then: The season will end in a place that hasnt seen the playoffs since 2000. It only feels like it has been that long around here.
DeCock: @LukeDeCock on Twitter, or (919) 829-8947