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Looking back at the Hurricanes’ roller coaster 2010-11 season

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The 2010-11 season was one that had highs, in the form of Rod Brind’Amour’s retirement night, Jeff Skinner’s award-winning rookie year and the All-Star Game in Raleigh, and lows, including multiple slumps and a heartbreaking finish in game 82.

Jeff Skinner scores the shootout game-deciding goal, Carolina Hurricanes vs. Minnesota Wild, Hartwall Areena, Helsinki, Finland. Oct. 8, 2010.
Jamie Kellner

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 a near miss in 2011.

2010-11 record: 40-31-11, 91 points, third Southeast Division, ninth Eastern Conference

Leaders: Goals: Eric Staal (33) Assists: Eric Staal (43) Points: Eric Staal (76) Wins: Cam Ward (37)

On paper, the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2010-11 season appears to be a solid year in which the team fell just short, missing the playoffs by just two points with a heartbreaking finish. And, it was. But it was so much more than that. It included surprise trades, games overseas, young guns stepping up and many highs and lows.

The Canes competed for a playoff spot all season despite the expectation of a rebuilding year. Eric Staal led the way with another stellar season, leading the team in all offensive categories. Cam Ward had the best regular season of his career, setting high marks in wins (37) and save percentage (.923), along with four shutouts.

Jamie Kellner

Jeff Skinner unexpectedly made the team and had a stellar rookie season, capturing the Calder Memorial Trophy after posting 31 goals and 63 points. Erik Cole scored 26 goals in his final season as a Canes, with a mind-boggling nine being of the game-winning variety. Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen rounded out a group of five 50-plus point scorers, teaming with Skinner to form the productive “Finns and Skins” line.

The Canes hosted the All-Star Game in what all ruled as a success for the team and city. They opened in Finland. And, of course, the season ended in heartbreaking fashion with a playoff knock-out punch in game 82.

Let’s take a look at the Canes’ second-best full season of the 2010’s, and what could have been.

A quiet offseason

The plan was for 2010-11 to be the start of a full-scale rebuild for the Hurricanes. The team hoped to take the next step the season before after its surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009, but, after a miserable start, the team sold off everything not tied down at the trade deadline.

As such, the Canes went into the offseason and did not make any earth-shattering moves. Joe Corvo, who had been shipped to Washington at the aforementioned deadline, was brought back in free agency, and the team also brought back forward Patrick O’Sullivan, and Anton Babchuk, who had spent the previous season in the KHL.

Longtime fan favorite Ray Whitney was allowed to leave. The team made a few unheralded trades for young players such as Bobby Sanguinetti, Riley Nash and Jon Matsumoto.

By far the biggest move came June 25 in Los Angeles, as, with the seventh pick in the draft, the Canes picked some figure skater over heralded defenseman Cam Fowler.

Starting with the long haul

The Canes were one of the teams selected to participate in the NHL’s 2010 Compuware Premiere games, opening with a pair of contests against the Minnesota Wild in Finland. It was, of course, a homecoming for Jokinen, Ruutu and defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

Carolina won both, including a 2-1 shootout decision with Skinner netting the winner.

The six-day break after the European trip meant the Canes had to hit the road for their annual State Fair road swing. The Canes played the first eight games of the year away from the confines of the then RBC Center, going 4-3 on the road before finally opening at home towards the end of the month.

The team went a perfect .500 in the opening month at 5-5-0, losing each of its first two home games. The biggest development of the opening month was that Skinner made it through his nine-game trial, signaling he was with the big club to stay.

A middling first half

The Canes were quite inconsistent in the first half of the 2010-11 season, with November bringing both blowout wins (seven goals each in wins over the Senators, Islanders and Oilers) and losses (an 8-1 loss to the Flyers). The team made a pair of trades in the month, sending Babchuck and and Tom Kostopoulos to the Calgary Flames for puck-moving defenseman Ian White and prospect Brett Sutter and shipping prospects Stefan Chaput and Matt Kennedy to Anaheim for Ryan Carter.

It took a while for the new pieces to gel and a mostly young team to find its footing, as the Canes ended the 2010 calendar year at 17-15-4. The team was right in the playoff chase though, sitting ninth in the East and six points out.

Surging into the All-Star Break

January was a month to remember for the Canes before hosting the All-Star Game in Raleigh. Starting with a 6-3 win over the New Jersey Devils on New Year’s Day, the team picked up points in six straight games to open the month, including a three-game winning streak.

Overall, the Canes went 8-4-2 in January, and entered the All-Star Break a mere point behind the Atlanta Thrashers for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot.

NHL All-Star Game player introductions, Jan. 30, 2011
Jamie Kellner

A weekend to remember

The Hurricanes hosted the 2011 All-Star Game, a showcase of hockey in Raleigh. It was the first season of the “fantasy draft” format, and the Hurricanes had four paricipants in Staal, Ward, Skinner (injury replacement) and rookie defenseman Jamie McBain (skills competition only).

Staal took Ward with his first pick, and also ended up with Skinner and brother Marc on his team. The Skills Competition provided plenty of fun moments, including PK Subban wearing Skinner’s jersey for the breakaway contest, and the game was the usual pond hockey affair, with Team Lidstrom defeating Team Staal.

February Slump

The most memorable moment of February came with Rod Brind’Amour’s retirement night, a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, it was a poor month overall, as the Canes went just 4-6-3. However, largely thanks to two wins over the Thrashers, the Hurricanes spent most of the month in a playoff spot, and finished it in eighth place with a two-point lead over the surging Buffalo Sabres.

That led to…

Jamie Kellner

Surprise buyers

Going into the year, it was assumed the Canes would again be deadline sellers as the rebuild continued, with a number of attractive trade chips on expiring deals in Cole, Jokinen, Pitkanen and Chad LaRose.

With the team in the hunt, though, Jim Rutherford rewarded his group with some reinforcements. After some early-month deals with San Jose, that saw the Canes ship the previously-acquired White for a second round pick and pick up defenseman Derek Joslin for future considerations, Rutherford made two sharp deals with the Florida Panthers.

The Canes’ former architect brought back Cory Stillman, a member of the 2006 Championship team, for Carter and a fourth-round pick, and acquired shutdown defenseman Bryan Allen for Sergei Samsonov.

A rollercoaster March

The Canes opened March with a pair of victories, including an overtime win over the Sabres (who the team battled for a spot for much of the month) that vaulted Carolina into seventh place. However, a slump that ultimately bears the most blame in keeping that team from the postseason followed.

Carolina lost five of its next six, dropping from the playoff picture in the process. Three of the losses were one-goal defeats against non-playoff teams in the Thrashers, Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, and, as we know, two points in any one of those games would have made all the difference. A punchless power play was largely to blame, as Carolina finished the season 24th on the man advantage.

The lone win, however, came against Buffalo, and, after a March 16 loss to Toronto, the Canes remained two points out.

A come-from-behind, overtime win over the New York Islanders, in which Cole scored a late game-tying goal and Pitkanen the overtime winner, got things turned around.

Carolina won five of six to close the month, and entered April trailing the Rangers and Sabres (in seventh and eighth place) by three points. The Stillman re-acquisition proved fruitful, as the veteran winger joined Staal and Cole on the top line and put up five goals and 16 points in 21 games.

Opening the door

A rollercoaster final week started with the Canes topping the Islanders on the road to get within a point of the playoffs.

Then came a pivotal Sunday matinee against Buffalo with a playoff-like feel. The Sabres prevailed in overtime, which led to them surging into the seventh spot, leaving the Canes and Rangers to battle for the final berth.

Earning a point left the Canes with hope, as they trailed the Rangers by a pair of points.

The Canes thought they were getting help that Tuesday night when the Rangers trailed the Boston Bruins 3-0 in the third period, but New York game back to win, leaving Carolina four points back.

The Canes kept pushing though, and topped the Detroit Red Wings 3-0 at home the next day. And then, an unexpected bit of help came. The Rangers dropped a Thursday night contest 3-0 to the Thrashers. The door was wide open. The Canes had two games left (at Atlanta, vs. Tampa Bay), the Rangers one. Win both, and Carolina would be in.

The Canes took care of the first half, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back in a 6-1, Friday night win over Atlanta that vaulted the team into the final playoff spot by tiebreaker.

That set up a final day full of opportunity.

Jamie Kellner

Heartbreak

There was a chance the Canes could punch their ticket before game 82, but the Rangers easily beat the Devils in their home finale as chants of “Let’s go Lightning” broke out.

Still, the Canes controlled their destiny, thanks to an 8-1-1 going into game 82. Win and they were in.

We all know what happened next, there’s no need to go into extreme detail here. Carolina had simply run out of gas. A Tampa Bay team that had already secured its seed and was “playing loose” jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the opening frame, and made it 4-0 in the second.

Goals by Stillman and LaRose cut the Canes’ deficit in half, but that was all she wrote as the Bolts scored a pair of empty netters for the 6-2 final score.

In the end, the team did fall just short, losing its best chance to make the playoffs in what turned into a nine-season drought. While the loss in game 82 felt like the biggest culprit in the miss, it can be argued the aforementioned February and March slumps ultimately did the team in. When a team loses a close game or blows a lead, it’s often said that those two points could be the difference. For that team, they were.

The season did have a final bright spot in June, when Skinner took home the Calder.

What could have been

As the eighth seed in the playoffs, the Canes would have faced the top-seeded Washington Capitals. The Rangers fell to Washington in five games, but it’s plausible a Canes team that still had several pieces from the 2009 run, including Staal, Cole, Ruutu, Gleason, Pitkanen, Jokinen and Joe Corvo, a proven playoff goalie in Ward coming off his best regular season, and a champion in Stillman, Carolina might have fared better.

Particularly with the rumors Staal was playing at less than 100 percent, it’s difficult to say if the team could have upset Washington, but, with a group riding high from a red-hot finish, it’s at least possible.

What’s more interesting to me is what could have happened in round two had Carolina beaten Washington. Under the old format, the Canes would have faced second seeded Philadelphia. In that postseason, the Flyers fell apart against the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Bruins, as their shaky goaltending imploded and was no match for Conn Smythe Winner Tim Thomas.

It’s likely it wouldn’t have been a match for Ward that season either. If the Canes could have snuck into the 2011 field, the team would have had at least a puncher’s chance at its second conference finals berth in three years, where things almost certainly would have ended against the Bruins or Lightning.

Regardless of the outcome in the playoffs themselves, a playoff berth in 2011 would have no doubt changed things going forward. Perhaps Erik Cole re-signs in Carolina instead of heading to Montreal.

Coming off two playoff berths in three seasons, there’s almost no chance Paul Maurice is fired in-season in 2011-12, regardless of the start.

The 2010-11 season was a roller coaster, full of highs and lows on and off the ice. And, ultimately, given preseason expectations, it has to be considered a success. However, opportunities that are a surprise still need to be taken advantage of.

The opportunity of the 2010-11 season was a missed one for the Carolina Hurricanes, ultimately the first of many in this decade before last year’s group finally broke through.