Why the Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs again

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2014 

  • Hurricanes playoff history

    (Since relocation to N.C.; Best four of seven series)

    1999: Lost to Boston Bruins in conference quarterfinals, 4-2.

    2001: Lost to New Jersey Devils in conference quarterfinals, 4-2.

    2002: Defeated New Jersey Devils in conference quarterfinals, 4-2; Defeated Montreal Canadiens in semifinals, 4-2; Defeated Toronto Maple Leafs in Eastern Conference finals, 4-2; Lost to Detrot Red Wings in Stanley Cup final, 4-1.

    2006 (won Stanley Cup): Defeated Montreal Canadiens in conference quarterfinals, 4-2; Defeated New Jersey Devils in semifinals, 4-1; Defeated Buffalo Sabres in conference finals, 4-3; Defeated Edmonton Oilers in Stanley Cup final, 4-3.

    2009: Defeated New Jersey Devils in conference quarterfinals, 4-3; Defeated Boston Bruins in semifinals, 4-3; Lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in Eastern Conference finals, 4-0.

— It’s easy to blame injuries. It’s easy to blame an anemic power play, a lack of scoring, poor starts and a home record not much better than the road record.

But, in truth, the reason the Carolina Hurricanes won’t be in the Stanley Cup playoffs again this season could be the most basic: They weren’t good enough.

The Canes’ best players weren’t good enough and didn’t provide enough leadership. The roster wasn’t good enough. The coaching probably could have done more. It all goes hand in hand.

The Hurricanes (35-35-11) will finish the season Sunday with a road game against the Philadelphia Flyers, then soon disperse. Some will go home. Some may play in the 2014 World Championship. All will question what went wrong, what more could have been done and wonder what will change before next season.

The Hurricanes are expected to have a new general manager. There could be a new look to the coaching staff. There could be a new mix of players.

Here are five reasons why the Canes missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season:

The big hurt

In retrospect, the Canes’ playoffs chances took a big hit before the season’s first puck dropped.

Joni Pitkanen, arguably the Canes’ most versatile defenseman and a power-play quarterback, was ruled out for the 2013-2014 season when his broken heel bone – an injury suffered late last season – failed to heal properly. Canes captain Eric Staal, meanwhile, sustained a serious knee injury last May in the 2013 IIHF World Championship and spent the summer working vigorously to rehab the injury and be ready for the start of training camp.

But the Canes may have been able to overcome those two injuries had it not been for two more – to goalies Anton Khudobin and Cam Ward, in a span of 11 days in October. Khudobin missed 2 1/2 months with an ankle sprain while Ward went out with a groin pull, returned too quickly, then was injured again.

“Cam’s injuries opened the door for Khudobin to play more and show us the kind of goalie he is,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “But we did have to deal with another goalie situation and the inconsistencies (the injuries) caused.”

Last season, the Canes faded after Ward was lost with a knee injury. Signing Khudobin in the offseason, they believed they had a good tandem in net this season, only to lose them both for extended stretches.

Out at home

In 2008-2009, the last year the Canes reached the playoffs, they set a franchise record with 12 straight home wins. That’s what good teams do.

This season, the Canes were 18-17-6 at PNC Arena after going 1-4-1 in their final six games on home ice. They never won more than three in a row there.

“Our play at home, especially in the first half of the season, really hurt us,” Rutherford said. “In the second half, too. There are probably five games we could have won.”

Every team has bad games at home, and the Canes had such head-scratchers as a listless 2-0 loss to Calgary in January and the game against the New York Islanders on March 25 when the Canes fell behind 4-0 in the first period. But there never was the feeling of a real home-ice advantage being established.

“I don’t know if we ease up at home or what,” forward Nathan Gerbe said. “We should be full force and ready to go.”

Slow getting started

No one on the Canes seems to have a good answer for a string of poor starts to games – Carolina has trailed after the first period in 29 games this season, 12 at home.

“It really became a pattern in the last 20 games or so,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said this past week. “We tried to address it a number of ways but it didn’t seem to pan out. The first five to 10 minutes, home or away, were not great.

“We had our best first shift and really wanted to focus on that against the Islanders two weeks ago. Nine minutes later, we’re down 4-0. That’s hard to explain.”

The Canes went without morning skates on the day of games, then held them. Muller kept emphasizing the need, the urgency to play with early energy. But all too often, the Canes couldn’t generate early momentum, leading only once after the first period in their final 10 home games (and losing that one).

“Why that is, I don’t have a great reason for it,” Hainsey said.

The trend continued Thursday, in the Canes’ last home game. Washington’s Joel Ward scored 62 seconds into the game to give the Caps a 1-0 lead. So it went.

“It seems like we were chasing it a lot, falling behind,” Eric Staal said.

Powerless play

On paper, the power play looked potent. Muller went into the season knowing he could send out Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Alex Semin, Jordan Staal, Jiri Tlusty, Justin Faulk, Andrej Sekera and others on the power-play units.

But nothing worked. There was too much hesitancy, too much over-passing and usually not enough net presence to make the goalies edgy and screen their vision. Game after game passed when a power-play goal could have been the difference in winning or at least squeezing a point out of a game.

“Too often it was like we were trying to score the perfect goal on the power play when we needed some dirty goals,” Rutherford said.

Eric Staal, who once feasted on power-play opportunities, has one power-play goal this season. Through Friday’s games, the Canes ranked 28th in the NHL in power-play percentage (14.4) despite a recent surge of seven power-play goals in the past 10 games.

The Canes are 23rd in the NHL in scoring at 2.47 goals a game. And while there has not been enough offensive punch in the lineup, the persistent power-play problem was a killer most of the season.

“I don’t think we had enough guys on our team with confidence where it needs to be,” Staal said.

Not getting their best

To reach the playoffs, the Canes needed solid years from their core, their best players – not necessarily career years, but good, solid years.

Eric Staal needed to be close to a point-a-game player and a forceful captain, bringing leadership on and off the ice. Jordan Staal needed to be more of an offensive producer. Semin needed to be a 30-goal scorer. So did Skinner. Defenseman Justin Faulk needed to continue his development and be more of a force on the back end.

And Cam Ward needed to stay healthy, return to the form and regain the consistency that once made him one of the NHL’s most dependable goalies – someone who played with the efficiency he showed in a 2-1 road win Friday against the Detroit Red Wings.

“To win in this league you have to have everybody going,” Rutherford said.

Injuries are unpredictable and all teams have them. But leadership has to be a constant. Effort has to be a constant. That’s what makes a playoff-caliber team.

Turns out, the Hurricanes didn’t measure up.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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