While the Boston Bruins gathered around the Prince of Wales Trophy, celebrating Thursday as Eastern Conference champions, the Carolina Hurricanes somberly gathered in their locker room at PNC Arena.
A final playoff loss is a shock to the system, no matter the score or the series outcome. The reality, so stark, was that the Canes had lost 4-0 to the Bruins and been swept in the best-of-seven series, leaving few of the players willing to take a big-picture look at the season while the loss was so fresh and the season at an end.
“Obviously it’s a bitter taste in your mouth, and probably in the next couple of days I’ll realize what we did accomplish this year and we’ll use that as motivation to make it farther next year,” defenseman Jaccob Slavin said.
The Canes, if grudgingly, conceded they had been beaten by the better team. The Bruins had the best goaltender, Tuukka Rask. They had the best special teams and the better depth. Bruins power plays became almost automatic scores while the Canes seemed jittery and out of sorts on their power plays. The Bruins won twice at PNC Arena, where the Canes were 5-0 in the first two series wins.
“We have to learn from this and I’m sure we are,” center Sebastian Aho said. “At the moment, it stinks. It hurts. Kind of a tough way to end the season ... but we can remember this feeling and hope to have success in the future.”
There were doubts in early October, after preseason training camp ended, that this could happen, that the Canes could end nine years of frustration and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009. An injury to Scott Darling created questions about goaltending. The Canes were about to start the season with rookies dotting the lineup -- Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele among them.
And what about the man behind the bench? Rod Brind’Amour was a warrior of a player, the captain of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup champions and a relentless worker as an assistant coach. But it would be his first year as a head coach, at any level.
With December coming to a close, things were bleak for the Canes, who were 15-17-5 and 10 points out of playoff position. Brind’Amour kept telling his team to stick to the process and keep working, promising things would turn. Justin Williams, Brind’Amour’s chosen team captain and an extension of the coach, did the same.
Then it all came together: quality goaltending from Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, timely goals, more victories in close games, a key trade for a scoring forward, Nino Niederreiter. The Canes won, even with workhorse center Jordan Staal out with a concussion in January and February.
The Canes became the talk of the league, and not just for their Storm Surge postgame frolics after home-ice wins. Starting with a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on New Year’s Eve, they were 31-12-2 in their last 45 games, the second-most wins in the league in that span.
Before the season began, Aho talked about setting goals, saying he wanted the Canes to have a 100-point season and be a team that’s “in the last four.” Prophetic or not, Aho and the Canes finished with 99 points (46-29-7) in the regular season and was one of four teams to reach the conference finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“We’re a better team this year. Anything can happen,” Aho said in September.
The Canes won at home (24 victories) and on the road (22), topping 40 wins for the eighth time in franchise history. They clinched their 14th playoff berth as the first wild-card team in the Eastern Conference. That’s what happened.
And then the Washington Capitals series happened. The Caps, intent on repeating their merry Stanley Cup run from 2018, won the first two games. But the Canes regrouped and won three times at PNC Arena to force a Game 7 in Washington.
It went to overtime, then double overtime before Brock McGinn got a stick on Justin Williams’ centering pass -- Mr. Game 7 with the big assist to win Game 7. That momentum carried over into the second-round series against the New York Islanders and the Canes won in four straight games.
If the playoffs were a “ whole different animal” as Williams called them, so were the Bruins in the playoffs. Rask was spectacular against the Canes. The Boston power play was nearly unstoppable -- the Bruins had two power-play scores Thursday and seven in the four games.
While the last game was a “dud,” as Brind’Amour called it, the city, the community was alive again in April and into May. The tailgates, the playoff parties, Hamilton the Pig, sellout crowds ... old playoff memories were rekindled and new ones made.
The Canes’ last loss ended with Canes fans giving them a standing ovation in the final minutes. That didn’t end until the team had left the ice, leaving the Bruins behind to celebrate.
“They’ve been unbelievable all year and especially in this playoff run,” Staal said. “They gave us life in that first series and they pushed us in that second one and they were great here in the third. Unfortunately we didn’t give them a good enough show in the third round but we appreciate the support and hopefully this team will continue to work like we did this year to give them a show.”
As Slavin said, “They know what we accomplished this year and I think they have the taste in their mouth that they want more next year, too.”