In the end, the Hurricanes exited the Stanley Cup Playoffs the same way they did last season, at the hands of the powerhouse Boston Bruins. With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss in Game 5 in Toronto, it was in a 4-1 series rather than a dominating 4-0 sweep.
The Hurricanes clearly haven’t entered the upper echelon of the league where the Bruins resides, but they’re also not the light-years away they were before Rod Brind’Amour took over as coach at the start of last season.
“We’ve closed the gap here from the elite teams,” Brind’Amour said in the final game of a bizarre season that ended for his team in the third week of August. “I think we’re closing, closing in, and as long as we learn what it takes to win — which I think we are, and we have this series — I think it’s gonna help this group move forward. And again, just really proud of this team.”
What mystified the Hurricanes last season again flummoxed them in this series, with Boston getting timely power play goals while Carolina struggled to control the pace to its liking throughout the five games.
Such it was in Game 5, with Boston’s power play erasing Carolina’s 1-0 lead in a 4:36 span late in the second period.
First, David Krejci put a loose puck past Petr Mrazek (25 saves) to tie the game at 15:20. Then with just four seconds left in the middle frame, Patrice Bergeron shot from below the goal line and rattled the puck in off an unaware Mrazek give Boston the 2-1 lead heading into the final period.
The go-ahead goal — like the first goal James Reimer allowed in Game 4 that opened the floodgates for the Bruins’ third-period comeback and win — proved to be the backbreaker.
The Hurricanes, desperate to extend the game and the series, managed just six shots on Jaroslav Halak (23 saves) — in that role thanks to Tuukka Rask’s stunning departure from the Toronto bubble prior to Game 3 — in the final period, never truly challenging the backup-turned-starter.
“I’m not sure that there’s any one piece,” captain Jordan Staal said of Carolina’s struggles against the Bruins. “I think there’s a lot of little things that we’ve could’ve done better. I thought we got away from our game a few times. Give them credit — they did a good job of not letting us get to our game.”
The Hurricanes didn’t start the game looking like a team that, despite the demoralizing Game 4 collapse, had given up on the series, and they got on the board first to take an early lead.
Defenseman Haydn Fleury — who has played the best hockey of his career since entering the Toronto bubble — got the puck at the right point and picked the far corner on Halak to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead at 9:35 of the first period.
It was the only goal the Hurricanes could muster, and there was no elimination game magic from Justin Williams, perhaps playing his final NHL game in a second tour of duty with Carolina.
“He meant everything just to have that leader, but that friend to go to,” Brind’Amour said of his linemate from the Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team. “You know, I was new at this, and everything I asked he made sure the team did and made my job really easy.
“And so, I’m not sure what his plans are, you’d have to ask him, but I can’t say enough good things about Justin.”
If the 38-year-old, who is a free agent, doesn’t re-sign or chooses to retire, Brind’Amour is surely hopeful the lessons he taught — as well as the ones learned in two series losses to the Bruins — will move his young team to the next level in seasons ahead.
“They know how to win and they’ve been there, but they also had to learn some tough lessons too along the way,” Brind’Amour said of the Bruins. “That core group they had, they had some tough times in early when they were together. And I think that’s made them the team that they are. And I think that’s what we’re doing here, and I really believe that.
“Time will tell, but we’ll see.”