RALEIGH — So this is what it looks like when a team runs out of gas. Low-danger chances at one end, spotty defensive coverage at the other, a power play that has none, a penalty kill that’s one step behind.
In the end, it’s no less disappointing to hear the explanation, or excuse if you prefer to go that route. That said, once the fog of the here-and-now inherent in any playoff run lifts off the Carolina Hurricanes, it will likely be much easier to reconcile, if not easier to take. The last gasp for the 2018-19 Hurricanes came on Thursday night in Game 4 at PNC Arena, a 4-0 Boston Bruins win that was as comfortable for the visitors as it was familiar for the home crowd.
Tuukka Rask was great, for sure, but Curtis McElhinney did his part to keep his team in it — fittingly, the one player, aside from the previously-injured Saku Maenalanen and Micheal Ferland, who had something left in the tank. The Hurricanes, to a man, were just a tick off all series, and when you’re facing the team that’s likely the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup, that’s a recipe for a quick exit.
Perhaps the Hurricanes fell victim to an odd trend: every team that polished off a sweep in the 2019 playoffs lost the next series. The Blue Jackets swept the Lightning and were eliminated by these Bruins; the Islanders took care of business against the Penguins and then were swept themselves by these Hurricanes; and now, the Hurricanes become the second team to be knocked out in a sweep, and the third overall, to fall in the round after they won in four games.
But that’s underselling the journey it took to get to this point. The Hurricanes were dead last in the East on December 30, ahead of only the woebegone Kings in the entire league. Yet here they were, playing their 98th game of the season, still alive while 27 other teams sat at home and watched them, their seasons complete.
A team can run on adrenaline for a good long while, as evidenced by the 39-14-3 run, including playoffs, that they ripped off beginning on New Year’s Eve. That’s a 116-point pace, at the business end of the season, and is nothing to be trifled with. In a way, it probably helped the Hurricanes that their series against the Islanders began with next to no break following their double-overtime Game 7 thriller over the Capitals.
And it probably hurt them to have a six-day break before starting the conference final, for the same reason. All that adrenaline was lost, and once it’s gone it’s hard to get it back. It’s analogous to running a marathon: when you’re in the midst of the race, your training takes over and it becomes an achievable feat, but as soon as you hit the finish line, you can’t move at more than a snail’s pace to do much of anything.
The Hurricanes hit the wall between series. The tank was empty. Pick your metaphor. It was ultimately too much to ask of a team full of playoff neophytes to know how to dial up the intensity on command. Look no further than the three shots they took in a span of nearly 30 minutes of game time, from early in the second period to midway through the third. They had 11 shots in the final two periods, much less a commentary on the Hurricanes’ own play than on the nearly letter-perfect defense the Bruins employed.
The time will come for the lessons of this year’s playoffs to be put to use. In the final evaluation, the Hurricanes will have plenty to hold their head high over. PNC Arena has reclaimed its throne as the loudest building in the league. The goal, oft-stated by Rod Brind’Amour, of making the team relevant again has been achieved, at least in the short term.
It is not one single bit easier to take in the moment, but ultimately the players who made an improbable run to a place where few believed they would find themselves have reconnected with a long-dormant fanbase. In the process, they’ve made names like Svechnikov, Aho and Slavin just as recognizable as those names from years before: Staal, Whitney, and, yes, Williams.
Thank you, Hurricanes. You made this area, these fans, and this league stand up and, to borrow a phrase, take warning. It's been a hell of a ride, and while it ended in a way that no one hoped it would, it doesn’t detract from the journey to get here. And what a journey it was.
Raise Up, forever.