PITTSBURGH — Other than holding up the Stanley Cup in victory, there probably is no good way for an NHL team to end the hockey season.
There's disappointment. There's a finality to playing the last game that brings frustration and regret.
So it was Saturday for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canes' season ended at Consol Energy Center. It ended against the Pittsburgh Penguins and ended with another loss as the Pens scored five times in the third period for an 8-3 victory.
Pittsburgh forward James Neal, returning to the lineup from a concussion, had a hat trick and an assist for the Pens (36-12-0). Former Canes forward Jussi Jokinen scored twice, and Evgeni Malkin, Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke also picked up goals for a deep, dangerous team that looks every bit a Stanley Cup contender, perhaps the favorite.
"There's only going to be one real happy team this year, like every year," Canes coach Kirk Muller said. "It's been an emotional ride and such a Jekyll and Hyde season for us. With all the injuries it has been a tough grind for these guys.
"Despite the score, I'm proud of the way the guys pushed to the end. They'll learn from it and it will make them better next year."
It was an emotional night for Canes center Jordan Staal, who spent the first six seasons of his NHL career in Pittsburgh and helped the Pens win the 2009 Stanley Cup. His return to Pittsburgh had to wait until the final day of the regular season, and Pens fans graciously received him well, giving him a standing ovation in the first period.
"It was nice," Staal said. "I have good memories in this building and in this city and I appreciate that from the fans."
Staal was in the starting lineup for the Canes, who finished 19-25-4. He took the opening face-off against Jokinen and won it.
Kevin Westgarth, who had one goal in 120 career games, was the Canes' surprise star this night, scoring twice. Tuomo Ruutu, who played just 17 games this season because of hip surgery, also had a goal as the Canes tied it 3-3 in the second.
Defenseman Jamie McBain appeared to give the Canes a 4-3 lead early in the third. Instead, Jared Staal was called for goaltender interference and Neal knocked in his second of the game on the power play.
Hats soon were flying for Neal and the Pens easily had ended a two-game losing streak. They're on to the playoffs next week.
"That was almost like a microcosm of our whole season in that game," Westgarth said. "Flashes of excellence but we couldn't maintain with the numbers we had.
The Canes dressed 18 skaters for the game. But center Tim Brent and defenseman Joe Corvo, both coming off injuries, played just one shift apiece and the minutes built up for the rest of the team.
"Physically our guys were pushed to the limit," Muller said. "Against a team like Pittsburgh, they'll make you pay."
For much of the first two periods, the Pens appeared to be breezing along. The best team in the Eastern Conference led 1-0 after the first period, 2-0 early in the second and then 3-1 later in the second when Jokinen -- traded by Carolina to Pittsburgh on April 3 -- followed up his own shot to score against goalie Justin Peters.
But the Canes had a their own sniper: Westgarth. The big forward, used mostly on the fourth line this season, scored twice in the second period. Westgarth knocked in a rebound of an Eric Staal shot, then wristed a shot past Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Westgarth's second goal came 37 seconds after Ruutu scored off a centering pass from Jordan Staal. Just like that it was 3-3.
"It was tough to come out in the third and a 3-3 tie and playing great and have them get a couple and it really deflates us," Westgarth said. "And it keeps going."
Pens captain Sidney Crosby is back skating with the team but did not play. Crosby, who has missed 11 games with a broken jaw, was at practice Friday and at the morning skate Saturday, and should be ready for the playoffs.
As for the Hurricanes, there is much time to heal. Their season is over.
Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip