For the Carolina Hurricanes, a 3-0 loss Saturday to the Dallas Stars had an elimination-game feel to it.
The loss didn’t mathematically end the Canes’ playoffs chances. They were six points behind the Boston Bruins, who held the second wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, after Saturday’s games with five games left to play.
But the mood in the locker room was somber, the players grasping the impact of their first regulation loss since March 7. Points in a franchise-record 13 straight games, a 9-0-4 surge, gave them a chance, but this regulation loss, being shut out on home ice at PNC Arena, was a collective gut punch.
As forward Lee Stempniak said, “We’re in a tough spot with a very thin margin for error, if there is a margin for error.”
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The Canes left for Pittsburgh, and a Sunday game against the Penguins, after Saturday’s game realizing they could finish with no more than 94 points. And that would take a sweep of their last five games, which is asking a lot.
Would 94 be enough? The odds are against it.
And it’s not just the Canes chasing the Bruins. The Tampa Bay Lightning (86 points) and New York Islanders (84) are in the fight.
The Atlantic Division shakedown also is adding a twist. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators both had 91 points after Saturday’s games, and either could slip down into the wild-card spot if Boston moves up.
The Leafs, after a road game Monday against Buffalo, play their last four games at home but it’s no easy stretch: Washington, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Columbus. That should test a young team on the brink of reaching the playoffs.
After road games against Pittsburgh and Minnesota, the Canes (35-28-14) return home to face the Islanders and St. Louis Blues before ending the regular season April 9 at Philadelphia. It’s now probable that for an eighth straight season there will be no postseason.
With the Edmonton Oilers having clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2006, when they lost to the Canes in the Stanley Cup finals, Carolina would be in the dubious NHL position of most years without a playoff berth.
The Canes went into Saturday’s game a confident group, having rallied Thursday to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 in overtime. The Stars were playing the fourth of five road games and with a 31-35-11 record were playing out the season.
But goalie Kari Lehtonen was sharp, posting his third shutout of the season. The Canes missed out on some offensive chances in the first period, Jason Spezza scored for the Stars in the second, the Canes continued to flounder offensively and a couple of late empty-net goals by the Stars ended it.
The Canes’ Jeff Skinner, who had 12 goals in March and has been the offensive catalyst, had just one shot. Carolina had 25 shots after getting 42, 32 and 31 in their past three games.
“It’s obviously disappointing because of what was on the line,” Stempniak said.