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Best Teams to Not Win: The 2008-09 Hurricanes

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Emotions were at an all-time high in 2009, when the Hurricanes pulled off one of the most improbable runs in franchise history.

Canes-Bruins Photo by Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Editor’s note: As SB Nation continues to do theme weeks with sports shut down, this week’s is “best teams to never win a championship”. While the Hurricanes don’t have much in the category of “clear cut title contenders that fell short”, they’ve seen plenty of remarkable runs. So, we’re going to highlight a few of those teams, what made them special and what ultimately kept them from winning. We’ll also be looking at two strong regular seasons with heartbreaking finishes. The series will feature five total teams, continuing today with an unlikely deep playoff run in 2009.

Setting the table for an eventual 2008-09 playoff run wasn’t too complicated for Jim Rutherford in the months leading up to the start of the regular season, but it got much harder as time went on.

He dished out contract extensions to all of Patrick Eaves, Tim Gleason, and 2008 trade deadline acquisition Tuomo Ruutu. The Canes also managed to agree to a deal with Anton Babchuk, one of the team’s most polarizing players of that era who had just played a season in Russia after being unable to agree to terms with the club following the 2006-07 season.

Another move to bolster the blue line came on the opening day of free agency. Erik Cole was moved to the Edmonton Oilers in a one-for-one deal for prime-aged offensive defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

Following additional in-house extensions with Dennis Seidenberg and Chad LaRose, the offseason was largely quiet up until the start of training camp in September.

In the second week of September, the Hurricanes made a deal that would go on to decide the direction of the franchise - a seven-year contract extension with Eric Staal that made him one of the highest-paid players in the National Hockey League.

With that extension agreed upon, all of Carolina’s ducks were in a row entering the season, one with high expectations that needed to be delivered on.

Peter Laviolette’s club started the year with consecutive wins before dropping 13 of their next 23 games, a stretch capped off by a 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks on home ice to close out the month of November.

That was the pivotal point in the regular season for the Canes, and it was the point where Laviolette, who coached the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006, was fired and replaced by former Hurricanes/Whalers head coach Paul Maurice.

The rest is history. The team went 33-19-5 under Maurice through the rest of the regular season, led by a truly dominant Eric Staal who scored 32 goals in 57 games under Maurice that season. Ray Whitney matched Staal’s 60 points over that span, but the majority of his production came from his gaudy assist numbers.

Cam Ward appeared in a staggering 50 of those 56 games, wherein he held a .918 save percentage and had five shutouts.

The month leading up to the trade deadline was a crucial period of time for Rutherford and company. His team was in the heat of the playoff race, but a key figure in past success found himself down and out for the count.

Justin Williams, who was in the middle of a very disappointing and injury-hampered season, saw his time with Carolina (for now) run out on Feb. 5. A broken leg ended his Canes tenure, as just a month later, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings as part of a three-way trade that brought Cole back to the team for the stretch run.

That move was preceded by what was thought to be a smaller deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning that saw Joseph Melichar and Wade Brookbank go to St. Petersburg in exchange for a slumping Jussi Jokinen.

Those deals ended up being huge difference makers.

Cole was an impactful offensive contributor right away, racking up a four-assist game in just his second game back in Carolina and adding 11 more points through the conclusion of the regular season. Jokinen’s early impact wasn’t nearly as dramatic, but his best was saved for the postseason.

The Canes clinched a playoff spot on April 4, and they did so in electric fashion.

Babchuk scored the playoff-clinching overtime-winning goal over the Pittsburgh Penguins, officially marking Carolina’s first postseason berth since winning the whole thing in 2006.

Maurice’s group followed that up with a 9-0 hammering of the Islanders before dropping each of their final two regular season games.

Round one of the postseason saw the Hurricanes go toe-to-toe with a very familiar April foe - the New Jersey Devils.

Once again anchored by soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur, the Devils won game one 4-1 in Newark.

Games two and three were both decided in overtime. After Staal and Zach Parise exchanged first-period goals in game two, the next goal wouldn’t be scored until 2:40 of the first overtime period when Tim Gleason, who didn’t score a single goal during the regular season, fired a puck by Brodeur to give Carolina their first win of the series.

Game three fell the other way when Travis Zajac spoiled the Hurricanes’ return to home playoff hockey with an overtime-winner, making game four an absolute must-win game for the Canes before hitting the road for game five in Newark.

This was the first magical moment of the playoff run.

After blowing a 3-1 third-period lead, the Hurricanes had one final gasp for air in regulation time. Jokinen tried a power move from behind the net with about nine seconds to go. That got denied and the puck got sent back to Pitkanen at the point. Joni traversed the blue line, corralled the puck, and put it in Seidenberg’s wheelhouse with exactly one second on the clock.

The rest is Hurricanes playoff history. A miracle Finnish.

Their heroics in game four didn’t lend themselves to more of the same in game five, where the Canes got dealt a 1-0 shutout loss on the road, putting them on the verge of elimination down 3-2 in the series.

Carolina responded with a 4-0 shutout win back in Raleigh on a Sunday afternoon. Staal found twine twice in the win and helped propel the Canes to a game seven back on the road.

Down by a goal in the second period, the Hurricanes squandered opportunity after opportunity as the Devils took three minor penalties in just over three minutes of in-game time. They failed to capitalize on the power plays they were gifted, making the third period a win or go home proposition.

Fast forward to the 18:30 mark, and perhaps the most iconic play of Tim Gleason’s Hurricanes tenure.

Rod Brind’Amour’s pass was errant and forced Gleason to sprawl out to his knees to keep the zone and get the puck to Pitkanen. Pitkanen then fired an absolutely gorgeous cross-seam pass to Jokinen on the backdoor to tie the game.

80 seconds on the clock, a 3-3 score in game seven.

48 seconds later, this game went down in history with its very own title - “The Shock at the Rock”.

The Hurricanes upset the Atlantic Division champion Devils in seven games, advancing to round two against the Eastern Conference regular season champions - the Boston Bruins.

After dropping game one in Boston, Carolina roared back and rattled off three consecutive wins, including a game-three overtime win thanks to the magic stick and celebratory shimmy of Jokinen.

Boston responded in convincing fashion in games five and six, turning the tables on Carolina and outscoring them 8-2 en route to tying the series and forcing yet another game seven.

Canes goals from Brind’Amour and breakout series x-factor Sergei Samsonov were matched by Byron Bitz and Milan Lucic at TD Garden, which meant more overtime hockey.

The first overtime period was nearing its final minute, still without a victor. That’s when the final magic moment of this playoff run took place.

Whitney entered the zone and sent a long-range shot on Tim Thomas. Thomas booted the rebound up into the air, where a charging Scott Walker whacked it home with just 74 seconds left in the frame.

To this day, Walker’s overtime winner is one of the most amazing moments in the history of the franchise. Just two games earlier, in game five, Walker was the center of controversy when he delivered a punch to the face of Aaron Ward, who evidently wasn’t expecting it and wasn’t willing to drop the gloves.

That was the on-ice component, but it paled in comparison to the off-ice component.

Just days after his series-winning goal, the world was made aware that Walker’s wife, Julie, was diagnosed with cervical cancer during that second-round series.

“No matter how tough you are, it’s hard to handle,” Walker said about the diagnosis. “The last couple games, I don’t even remember playing. I was just trying to do my job and play as hard as I could”

Maurice said that he was “never happier to see a guy score a goal” than he was after Walker ended game seven.

That added context makes Walker’s goal one of the most unforgettable moments in Hurricanes history and makes the celebration following the goal so much more impactful and emotional.

The clock struck midnight on Carolina’s Cinderella story after that. The Pittsburgh Penguins swept the Canes out of the 2009 Eastern Conference Final before ultimately winning the Stanley Cup a couple of weeks later.

The 2008-09 Carolina Hurricanes faced a lot of adversity, making their success and the way they achieved their success a story that resonates more than a decade later. That group was the last truly special Hurricanes team of those early 2000’s, writing a story that couldn’t be met or expanded upon until the spring of 2019.