After 75+ games of grueling, regular season hockey, the Carolina Hurricanes were tired.
Both mentally and physically, it was evident that the team was just running through the motions after three straight losses to teams already eliminated from postseason contention, and with the playoffs already secured, there was little to really push for.
“Guys were trying,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour had said before the win at home against Detroit. “It wasn’t a lack of effort, but we just didn’t have the pop. I think a lot of teams are dealing with that, but maybe our group maybe more than others because of how we have to play the game to be successful.
“I think it coincided with right when we made the playoffs, that we’ve taken a little breath as a group. You can see it in the results, making a little more inconsistent plays here and there and I think it’s a little bit of human nature because no matter who we play in the first round, it’s going to be a tough opponent... But our goal is to finish first.”
And so while things got shaky towards the end, the Hurricanes regrouped and punched through the final two games of the season, culminating in a 6-4 win over the Florida Panthers to secure their third-straight division title, checking off the first goal of the season.
“The guys we have in that room, they’re as honest as they come and they go out there and they earn their way every night and that’s what you see,” Brind’Amour said following the win in Florida. “That’s the way we have to get it done from top to bottom. Doesn’t matter who it is. They just come to play.
“I’m proud of the group. Obviously, it’s kind of neat because that’s a big accomplishment. After 82 games to be the best in your division and with the division we’re in, that says a lot.”
Things started off fairly smooth for Carolina as Brent Burns got the scoring going midway through the first period and then early in the second, Jesperi Kotkaniemi doubled the lead.
The game was progressing mostly stress free for the Canes, but the third period presented an entirely different game for the visiting club.
With eight goals scored between the two teams in total over the course of the final 20 minutes, it’s safe to say a handful of fans had their blood pressures spiked.
Within 3:33 of playing time into the third, the game was tied at two goals apiece with Aleksander Barkov and Ryan Lomberg potting goals for the Panthers.
Immediately following the equalizing goal, Brind’Amour took his timeout to refocus his group and the decision seemed to pay off.
Not long after the timeout, Burns collected his second goal of the game and tied Brady Skjei for both the team lead and the single-season team record for goals by a defenseman at 18.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him to be honest,” Brind’Amour said of Burns. “Our D are real special back there and with the amount of pressure we put on them to perform in every aspect of the game. And this guy has been better than advertised and it’s been a real pleasure to be around him and have him with our group.”
And 21 seconds after that, it was Jesper on the Spot, as Jesper Fast banged home a rebound following a strong net-front effort by Jordan Staal.
The Panthers got a late power play chance and they pulled goaltender Alex Lyon to go 6-on-4, but Carolina held strong and Shayne Gostisbehere got the puck coming out of the penalty box and nailed the empty netter with 2:40 to go.
But that’s when the game got weird.
With 2:02 remaining in the third, Anthony Duclair shot one from distance that squeaked through Frederik Andersen’s five-hole.
Then with 1:24 remaining, a heavy scrum in front of Carolina’s crease ended with Carter Verhaeghe banging home the loose puck. The lead was back down to just a single goal.
But with 1:00 remaining Seth Jarvis would send Sebastian Aho out of the defensive zone where he iced the game with the second empty net goal.
So despite the roller coaster of emotions, the Hurricanes managed to take care of business and secure the Metropolitan Division title.
“It got a little crazy,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s never easy for the group, that’s for sure, but we had a couple of bad bounces obviously. Played a pretty good game and then all of a sudden a couple of weird things happened and all of a sudden it was a game, but I love how the guys just went about their business, restored the lead and played pretty solidly. The end was a little weird, but for the most part it was a hell of an effort.”
And it was a good thing that the Canes held on in this game, because the New Jersey Devils would come back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to win in overtime against the Washington Capitals and finish the regular season just one point behind the Hurricanes and setting themselves up with a first round matchup with the New York Rangers.
Now, the regular season is over and after 82 games, the Canes ended up with a 52-21-9 record, good for 113 points, first in the Metropolitan Division and second in the entire NHL.
“You do have to take a second and say, ‘Hey we just went seven months and did a damn good job,’ Brind’Amour said. “I know people get critical and can point out things, but you know what, we still have the second best record in the NHL next to the team that just blew it up.
“You need to take a step back and go, ‘That’s pretty good,’ because in the end we also had a lot of guys out. We had missing pieces. But we pieced it together and obviously we’re going to turn the page here, but I think it’s time to say, ‘That was a pretty good job.’”
And while Carolina will take in the moment, they won’t dwell on it.
“It’s not what we came to do,” Brind’Amour said. “We’ve got bigger things that we want to accomplish.”
It’s finally playoff time and it’ll be the New York Islanders who will be Carolina’s first round opponent starting either Monday or Tuesday at PNC Arena.