The end of an amazing run
The playoffs did not officially start until April, but the Carolina Hurricanes had been playing playoff hockey since January.
When Carolina was eight points out of a wild card spot on the 15th of January, no one believed in them. When they eventually did fight their way into the Stanley Cup Playoff picture, once again no one believed in them. In playoff series against the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, no one believed in them.
That’s of course except inside in the Hurricanes locker room, and inside in the state of North Carolina.
If only on January 15, inside the ‘Canes locker room, they knew what they were about to do for not only themselves, but a city and a fanbase hungry for hockey.
“I want to thank the people in this community for supporting us. I hate that we went out like that, on that game. That was just a dud game for them to come watch. So, I apologize for that,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
“But, tremendous support for our team. It means a lot to me, but it means a lot to our players and our organization, the city, the people. Not just coming back, but the way they do it and the way they get behind our group. It’s a real community feel, I mean the players, there’s something special, and again, it was great.”
Sure, getting swept in the Eastern Conference Finals was not the ending they were hoping for, but it was a massive step forward for a young Hurricanes team.
“We overachieved, there's no [other] way you can look at it," Brind'Amour said. "You can look at these last four games and go, 'That wasn't very pretty,' but if you take the whole picture of what went on here, it's pretty impressive, in my opinion."
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Carolina ran into a Bruins team that was just that much better. They also ran into a goalie in Tuukka Rask who is arguably playing the best hockey of his career.
Rask stopped 109 of 114 shots he saw in the series.
Some of the Hurricanes wounds were self-inflicted, as the Bruins made the Hurricanes pay for most of the penalties they took in the series. The Bruins finished the series 7-for-15 on the power play, including two in the series clinching Game 4 victory for Boston.
“Their power play was better, their penalty kill was better, and we couldn't get anything past Rask," Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. "We scored one goal in two games here at home."
Home ice was something the Hurricanes really took advantage of in the Stanley Cup playoffs, winning five of seven home games. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, those two losses came in their last two contests of their impressive 2018-19 season.
“At the start of the season, we wanted to get back to relevancy and we wanted more, but I feel like being one of the final four teams playing we accomplished that," said Jordan Staal. “And for a young team, knowing that we can build off of that is promising and I think the fans understand that. I think this city understands that and you can see they're excited about this group, as we are.”
There’s no official consolation prize for losing in the Eastern Conference Finals, but there is no denying this playoff run will do a ton of good for the Hurricanes as they turn the page to the upcoming 2019-20 season.
“We have to learn from this and I'm sure we will,” Sebastian Aho said. "At the moment, it stinks, you know? It hurts. Kind of a tough way to end the season, but we're going to look at the big picture and remember this feeling and hope that helps us in the future."
The future is undoubtedly bright for the Hurricanes, however the future of Williams is one that’s unclear.
The 37-year old Williams is set to become a free agent on July 1st. Williams has 18 NHL seasons under his belt and three Stanley Cups to go with it.
“It's always tough to swallow when the season ends just abruptly like that. It's just like you're cut real quick and you've got to go home,” said Williams. “I just told my kids I was planning on going to Boston tomorrow, but I'll be home tomorrow after school.”
If Game 4 was indeed Williams’ last game with the Hurricanes, or even in National Hockey League, he certainly left his imprint on a young Hurricanes team that despite the odds, proved many doubters wrong.
“I don't know what his (Williams) plans are, but he also knows that the likelihood of getting back this far is rare. It's tough. I think there's almost more disappointment for older guys than younger guys because the young guys don't know,” Brind’Amour added. “And I think he is just probably at that point where he needs to reflect a little."