The Carolina Hurricanes players were somber and apologetic after Thursday’s final home game at PNC Arena.
Losing to the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 was not what they wanted, not the way they want to bow out on home ice. It was a sour finale, disappointing most of the crowd of 15,120.
“You want to give the fans a good game in the last game,” Canes forward Jeff Skinner said. “They’ve been great all year for us and they were great again tonight. Hopefully we will be playing a little longer next year.”
For the seventh straight year, the Hurricanes won't be a part of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Carolina (35-30-16) has one game left, on the road Saturday against the Florida Panthers, then faces another long offseason filled with more questions.
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One will be about goaltender Cam Ward, who may have played his last game at PNC Arena on Thursday. Long the franchise goalie, a hero in the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run when he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP, Ward is due to become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Ward, rock-solid Tuesday in the Canes’ 2-1 shootout win on the road against the Boston Bruins, was anything but his bestThursday. Nor did it help that the Canes’ defensive-zone play was too loose too many times.
Habs captain Max Pacioretty and rookie defenseman Darren Deitz each had a goal and assist for Montreal (37-38-6), which was 19-4-3 in early December but was derailed by injuries to goalie Carey Price, defenseman P.K. Subban and others. Daniel Carr scored the go-ahead goal in the second period and Lars Eller sealed the victory with a late third-period score.
“It was a difficult game,” Ward said. “Montreal still has some very skilled forwards and they were playing hard to expose us. We had a little more of a difficult time, but that's going to happen. It's a learning game for our players.
“We're extremely young and I tend to like to think about all the positives those kids have done all season long. They've been very impressive and it's been a lot of fun to play with them and see them grow, not only as players but professionals in the league."
The winning goalie was a rookie who was playing college hockey at St. Cloud State a few weeks ago, signing a free-agent entry-level contract with the Canadiens on March 30. Charlie Lindgren made his NHL debut memorable, allowing an early goal to Riley Nash and second-period score to Canes rookie Noah Hanifin but steadying as the game progressed and finishing with 26 saves
The Canadiens, in their last road game of the season, were quick to pucks and tight in their defensive gaps, outquicking the Canes much of the game and forcing a lot of turnovers.
“I thought (Lindgren) did a good job of sticking with it, and we didn’t create a ton of Grade-A chances,” said Canes center Jordan Staal, who was named the team MVP this season on Thursday by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Staal set up Hanifin for a shot from the point in the second period, giving the Canes a 2-1 lead. But Pacioretty blistered a shot that caught Ward high, the puck tumbling over Ward’s shoulder, then assisted on Carr’s go-ahead goal with 3:09 left in the second period.
Dietz scored his first NHL goal with 9.9 seconds left in the first as the Habs crowded Ward in the crease.
The Canes lost center Derek Ryan in the game to an upper-body injury. Ryan, recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, was hit along the boards in the second period and did not return.
But the Canes were outskated most of the game. As Peters put it, “I thought we made it hard on ourselves.”
The Hurricanes have one last chance to play together before scattering for the summer. It won’t be at home but they’d like to win it.
“We’ve played the right way, we’ve played hard, we’ve played quick,” Peters said. “Tonight, we weren’t able or willing. We looked a little slow and indecisive with the puck. We want to make sure we’re able to play the game properly on Saturday.”