RALEIGH, N.C.—It’s official—the Carolina Hurricanes have been eliminated for playoff contention.
What has been inevitable for the majority of the 2011-12 season became a reality on Friday as the Canes fell to Winnipeg in overtime, 4-3. Andrew Ladd potted the game-winner for the Jets 16 seconds into OT to put the final nail in his former team’s coffin.
“It’s always fun to score against Wardo,”‘ Ladd said. “We’re good buddies, but we’re very competitive with each other and it’s fun to get the upper hand. I’ll have bragging rights for the summer, at least.”
The Canes blew a third period lead for the second time in less than a week, this particular meltdown proving fatal. Carolina was outshot 18-9 in the final 20 minutes, allowing Winnipeg the opportunity to mount a comeback and keep their own postseason hopes alive, albeit on life support.
“It was 3-1. We have a chance to bury a team and move forward, and when you keep teams hanging around, generally, they’re going to get a second life,” Kirk Muller said. “And they did. They scored at the right times and we just dropped our level of intensity.”
Carolina added to its NHL-worst 16 overtime/shootout losses this year, a tough pill to swallow for a group that knows they could be right in the thick of things had a few crucial bounces gone their way.
“In overtime, anything can happen. And we’ve let a lot of points slip away in the extra frame this season,” said team captain Eric Staal. “It’s difficult. You look back … it would’ve been nice to point up those points (in overtime), but it is what it is.”
“Sometimes, it goes that way in shootouts and overtime, but we have to be accountable,” defenseman Jay Harrison said. “We have skill. As a group, we could have been better.”
For all intents and purposes, the Canes’ playoff chances have been virtually nonexistent for the better part of the 2011-12 campaign—such is often the case when a team stumbles out of the gate like they did, losing 25 of their first 35 games.
But faith prevailed in Carolina’s locker room despite the aforementioned hardship, and it lingered far longer than anyone could have envisioned back in November, back when Paul Maurice left the franchise in shambles.
Of course, a lot has changed since then. 46-year-old Kirk Muller took the reins as head coach and has since made Jesus’ water-into-wine feat seem like a cheap trick compared to what he’s turned the Canes into. The same team with nearly the same roster has gone from last place in their Conference on New Years to one of the most productive clubs in the second half.
Now fully invested in their coach’s philosophy, the Canes have played postseason-worthy hockey since the All Star break and have been better than every other team in the Southeast over that span. Had Muller taken over sooner, the Canes might’ve been able to add another division championship banner to the PNC Arena rafters. If only.
Granted, Carolina’s playoff hopes have been a pipe-dream for some time—Lloyd Christmas probably had better odds with Mary Swanson than the Canes had to finish among the top eight in the East. Still, they proved a lot of people wrong by staying alive as long as they did, and the momentum they’ve built up over the past few months could mean big things for the future.
While the Canes’ demise has been a long time coming, the fact that they were technically in the hunt with just four games left is a testament to how far they’ve come in such a short time. If their level of play during the second half of ’11-’12 can translate to next fall, there’s no reason to believe they can’t become a contender and even vault to the top of the Southeast Division hierarchy.
Andrew Hirsh is a graduate of Elon University and is entering his fourth year as a credentialed NHL writer. He founded SunbeltHockey.com in 2012 and serves as the site’s managing editor. Andrew can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.