Hurricanes “If-Only” Season Concludes

The Tampa Bay Lightning paid their final visit of the season to Raleigh, NC Saturday evening. Their destination was the PNC Arena, home of the Carolina Hurricanes where 15,402 fans braved a cold, rainy April night for the final game of the regular season for the playoff-bound Lightning, and the final game of the season for the Hurricanes. For the hometown team and its fans, it was the conclusion of a season best described as “what if?”

The game mattered to the Lightning who were still jockeying for first place in the Atlantic Division with the Boston Bruins. The Bruins were in action Sunday night in the only game on the NHL schedule. They faced the Florida Panthers at home in a makeup game from Jan. 4 that was snowed out in Boston. The Bruins lost and the Lightning closed out the season in first place and the top seed in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs.

What if, More First Period Starts Like This

Team co-captain, Jordan Staal got things going for the Hurricanes by shooting the puck past the Lightning backup goaltender, Louis Domingue. Domingue’s record prior to the game was 7-9-0. Ordinarily, this would not be a big deal but Staal scored 19 seconds into the first period. What if this was the norm, not speaking about Staal specifically, but for the team?

Jordan Staal Hurricanes
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes, Mar. 1, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What if the Hurricanes had been able to come out swinging in more games, grabbing the lead early and putting pressure on their opponents more than the other way around? What if they “started on time” in every single contest, and that those words were never used to describe the Hurricanes’ effort in a game?

In April 2015 I wrote about my end of season interviews with some of the players in the locker room. I asked the same question repeatedly, “What can be fixed to get you guys to start on time?” The consistent answer that it was a mental thing and guys just needed to be prepared. Captain Obvious was alive and well.

Fast forward to January of 2018 and the topic was again brought up in my posts about the team:

The biggest concern has to be under the heading of mentality, and that has been the Achilles’ Heel of this team. It seemed that the team had moved beyond this unexplainable lack of energy when starting games.

Apparently, they had not. The bottom line is how in the world can a team of professional athletes not be prepared for a game? Obviously, there are individual situations that can arise with family, health, etc. But, an entire team dragging around on the ice at the beginning of a game is beyond rationalization. What if the ‘Canes started on time all of the time?

What if Cam Ward Had Been the Starter on Day One?

There are a lot of Cam Ward haters in the Hurricanes’ universe. But, it is not a fair way to look at the player who has been the team’s go-to goalie since 2006.

Bringing in Scott Darling to take over the number one spot was something that former general manager, Ron Francis felt had to be done. In hindsight, it was not the best move. Of course, who knew that a year ago? No one. But, if Ward had been the starter and Darling the backup, perhaps things would have turned out differently. Certainly, Ward would have won more games than Darling did, and would not have had the several blowout losses that Darling gave up. Up to the end of the season, Ward looked at times like he could easily go the distance next season:

Unfortunately, there were times when it appeared – and fans commented about this on social media – that the Hurricanes defense was not playing as hard for Darling. I don’t buy into that speculation. Maybe they were frustrated and it looked as if their effort was not the same as they gave for Ward. But, having spent four seasons after games in the locker room with the team, there is no way I’m buying that the players would show such a lack of character as to not play for their goaltender, be it Darling or Ward.

The question will never be answered but it is easy to ask rhetorically, “What if Ward had been number one and Darling brought along for a year?” Maybe these Hurricanes would be getting ready for round one.