For weeks, the Carolina Hurricanes have clung to the belief they could claw their way into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Win games, get on a late run, hopefully get some help, slip in at the end.
It’s not going to happen. The Canes were officially eliminated from playoff contention Saturday in a 5-1 beating by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were fueled by Brandon Saad’s first career hat trick and a clock-beating goal from Boone Jenner.
“We had high expectations of ourselves,” Canes goalie Eddie Lack said. “We always believed in ourselves and we kept it alive a long time here.
“Even after the trade deadline, when we lost three of our best players, I feel like we had a lot of young guys coming in and I felt like we were alive for a long time.”
The Hurricanes (34-29-16) traded former captain Eric Staal, forward Kris Versteeg and veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. They were 6-2-6 in March, earning points in 12 of 14 games, but now will miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
The Philadelphia Flyers, who won Saturday, have 91 points and hold the final wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference. The Canes, with three games remaining, have 84 points.
Jeff Skinner’s 28th goal of the season gave the Canes a 1-0 lead almost nine minutes into the game, but Saad’s first goal, on a breakaway after a Canes turnover, tied the score in the first period. Saad, who now has 28 goals, scored twice in the second and Jenner got his 30th of the year on a 5-on-3 power play with one-tenth of a second left in the period for a 4-1 lead.
A hustling play by rookie Sonny Milano and centering pass set up Saad for his second goal. It was the first NHL point for Milano, a former first-round pick by Columbus.
“I wasn’t good enough. No one was good enough, really,” Lack said.
Oliver Bjorkstrand scored in the third for Columbus and goalie Joonas Korpisalo, who gave up some rebounds but made some nice saves, earned his 15th victory of the season.
The Canes, who won the first three games against Columbus this season, had 16 first-period shots but just two in the second as the Blue Jackets (31-39-8) surged ahead.
“We stopped moving our feet and it’s tough to make plays when you’re standing still,” Skinner said. “We just didn’t work enough. They took advantage and created some offensive chances.”
The Canes were coming off an emotionally charged game Thursday. Staal, who was traded Feb. 28 to the New York Rangers, returned to PNC Arena, receiving a stirring video tribute and standing ovation, only to have the Canes rally to win the game 4-3.
But there was a sparser crowd Saturday and little emotion. Canes fans began leaving in the third period, many presumably to watch North Carolina’s Final Four game.
“I feel a little bad for the fans because it was not the game we wanted to play,” Jordan Staal said. “We obviously didn’t have much life.”
The Canes finish out the season with road games against Boston and Florida and one last home game Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. Then, another long offseason.
“Nothing’s going to change really,” Skinner said. “We’ve got a few games left and you want to win every time you go out there. It’s disappointing not to play after that, but we can worry about that after these next few games.”