Justin Faulk scored on his own bobblehead night, Anton Khudobin was stellar, and the Carolina Hurricanes won a game that, in their little universe, mattered very little.
There are two ways to look at Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars, and it isn’t as simple as optimism and pessimism, although there is some of that.
There was futility in vast supply, the Hurricanes’ season going nowhere yet again, a fifth straight season ending at the 82nd game, on the verge of mathematic certainty. (Even if the Hurricanes were to win their final five games, they’d still need help.) Just when this area really sunk its teeth into playoff hockey, it has been starved of it for four-going-on-five years, with only the one appearance since 2006.
“We would have liked to have been in a better position at this point in the season,” said Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles, who had a goal and two assists. “We’ll try to win all five.”
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Yet there was also hope in evidence, as the young players who have carried the team over the past few games continued to show signs of progress, from Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm to Faulk and Riley Nash. The Hurricanes rode Khudobin through a shaky first, then scored three straight goals in less than five minutes of the second period to take control against the Stars, who unlike the Hurricanes are in a heated race for a playoff spot.
Nash put away the win in the third, cleaning up a loose puck in the slot with a top-shelf wrister as the fans roared. For a moment, all was forgotten as hope was to be found not merely on the ice, but in the stands as well: A solid crowd, announced at 15,730, to see a nonconference opponent that isn’t a huge draw in the third-to-last home game of the season on a Thursday night, with tailgaters enjoying a beautiful evening outside.
Over the past five years, this franchise has done just about everything possible to alienate those fans: mediocre, uninspired hockey; steadily climbing ticket prices and exorbitant parking fees; even a new jersey, forcing fans to shell out $170 just to keep up with the style of the times. And still, they keep coming back. They got hooked on the good stuff, and they’re still willing to pay twice the price for a pale substitute.
Oddly enough, as hard as the past five years have been on fans, their persistence bodes well for the future of the franchise. While there is the potential for real and irreversible damage this summer as even the hardest of the hard core decide whether to renew their season tickets, the Hurricanes head into an offseason that figures to be tumultuous at the least and the one thing – the only thing – they can count on is their fan base.
Change is coming, with Jim Rutherford expected to step down as general manager, Cam Ward likely headed elsewhere and persistent rumors in the hockey world that owner Peter Karmanos is set on slashing the payroll this offseason – although rumors are just rumors and Karmanos is one of the least predictable people on the planet.
So as the Hurricanes play out the string, with five games left, Thursday was a reminder of what once was, a glimpse of what could have been this season and a partial preview of what might be in the future. This team could look very different next fall. If it looks more like Thursday and less like most of the rest of this season, that would be OK.