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What if the Hurricanes seized the moment in 2011?

The Hurricanes’ 2011 season-ending loss to miss the playoffs was gut-wrenching. But few stop to consider the potential far-reaching impacts of a different result.

Jamie Kellner

It’s alternate reality week at SB Nation. What if this game changed? What if this trade never happened? How would certain events changing have altered a franchise’s long-term fate? Canes Country actually did a “revisionist history” two offseasons ago, but there are plenty of events we didn’t cover, or can offer fresh perspective on. Today, I’m imagining a very different ending to a roller coaster of a season.

The game-82 loss to Tampa Bay, one that knocked the Canes out of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, is infamous in team history. I profiled that season at length last month, a jam-packed slate that ended in heartbreak.

But what if it didn’t? What if the Canes seized the opportunity to return to the playoffs for the second time in three years? Let’s find out:

Win and you’re in

To remind everyone of the stakes, fresh off a late-season surge, and 6-1 win over the Atlanta Thrashers the previous night, the Canes entered the final day needing either a win or Rangers loss to clinch a spot. The Rangers won that afternoon, setting the stage for a win or go home finale for the Hurricanes in Raleigh.

The Canes, perhaps overwhelmed by the pressure, perhaps simply exhausted, were behind the eight-ball from behind but never recovered.

The simplest way to fix that seems to be to score first. Tampa Bay’s first goal came after Joni Pitkanen had a step out of the penalty box but could not settle the puck, leading to Tampa goalie Mike Smith playing it all the way down the ice before Tampa took a 1-0 lead.

In this scenario, Pitkanen comes out of the box, settles the puck, glides in and blows a shot blocker side on Smith. The crowd is ignited, and the Canes are settled in with the lead. Cam Ward continues to hold the fort, and Cory Stillman tallies late in the second to extend the lead to two. Tampa would cut it in half with a late goal from Martin St. Louis, setting things up for a tense finish.

Eric Staal would seal the deal with an empty netter, and the then RBC Center would go wild as Carolina booked its ticket to the postseason.

Into the playoffs

Carolina would have been the eight seed in the 2011 playoffs, and taken on the top-seeded Washington Capitals, starting that rivalry in fine fashion eight years early. While Washington would have been a tall task, but this was a Canes team with young star power in Jeff Skinner, a proven playoff goalie in Cam Ward coming off his best regular season, Staal in his prime, and some clutch goal scoring in the form of Stillman, Erik Cole and Jussi Jokinen.

It would be a hard-fought, brutal series that would go the distance. After alternating wins through six games, Carolina becomes the first in the series to win back-to-back. With game seven in DC knotted at three goals apiece and just under five minutes to play, Cole would pick the puck up in the neutral zone for one of his patented rushes down the wing, grabbing yet another game winner that season to send the Canes to round two.

Under the old format, the Canes would have faced No. 2 Philadelphia in round two. For those that remember the 2011 playoffs, the high-octane Flyers fell apart in this round, largely due to an epic collapse from their goaltending and the play of Tim Thomas for Boston.

I’ll say they wouldn’t have fared better against Cam Ward, and the Canes shock the hockey world with a sweep (sound familiar) to get into the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row.

The road would end there, as the Canes put up a valiant effort but simply fall short against a juggernaut Bruins team destined for glory.

The future

This sets up a fascinating domino effect. Does Cole, fresh off another deep playoff run, and with the team armed with three rounds of playoff gate money, re-sign rather than bolting to Montreal (where he had the best season of his career in 2012-13)? Good chance.

Even if the team gets off the same abysmal start in 2011-12 (which is probably less likely coming off a playoff run and with Cole back), firing Paul Maurice probably isn’t even a consideration coming off two conference final berths in three years. With him likely being a hot candidate for another team at the time (he was a popular one), the Kirk Muller era never happens.

With a better season in 2011-12, and without coming off a three-year playoff drought (if only we knew then), is Jim Rutherford compelled to swing for Jordan Staal at the 2012 draft? Perhaps not. How does getting to the playoffs as a rookie change Jeff Skinner’s development and maturation?

The Hurricanes’ season finale in 2011 may have just been one game on paper, but a different result could have altered the team’s trajectory for years to come.