After the Carolina Hurricanes fumbled away a playoff berth at home on Saturday night, one anticipated there might be more sugarcoating than at the Wonka factory.
It's a likeable team, and what a ride, what with the All-Star Weekend and Brind'Amour night and the playoff push and Jeff Skinner Mania. It's a young team, and this is a learning experience. Countdown to hearing about the injuries: Hurricanes announcer Tripp Tracy was already selling that line as the broadcast ended, slipping in that Eric Staal played through "a major groin issue" down the stretch.
Excuses, valid or otherwise, aside: This 6-2 loss to the Tampa Lightning in Raleigh was a choke. It always is when you have your playoff fate in your hands, as the Hurricanes did, and fail to close the deal.
It's disappointment magnified when a team goes into a game knowing that the team it's chasing, the New York Rangers, manned-up and won a season-salvaging game on Saturday afternoon; and when the team it's facing, the Tampa Bay Lightning, has nothing to play for but their own health entering the postseason.
And yet the Hurricanes, knowing this, saw their season end in the game's first 14 minutes.
At 6:45 of the first period, Steve Downie took a shot from inside the blue line, goalie Cam Ward's rebound went through the defense and right to Dominic Moore, whose shot deflected off of Ward and into the top corner. Less than five minutes later, Marty St. Louis's errant pass became a Vinny Lecavalier breakaway, as he slipped behind Bryan Allen and Derek Joslin and beat Ward on a shot that an MVP simply has to stop in a game like this.
Suddenly, it was 2-0 in 11:19. Suddenly, it seemed as though the team with nothing to play for had taken an active interest in controlling their division rival's fate.
Then came the dagger, 1:58 later: Simon Gagne plays the puck past Jamie McBain, Teddy Purcell collects it and Cory Stillman's pedestrian back-checking allows Steven Stamkos to cash in a juicy 2-on-1 feed.
Suddenly, a 3-0 deficit in 13:17. Suddenly, the Rangers were deciding which Smithsonian museums they'll visit between games in Washington, D.C.
With the score 4-1 in the third period, the Hurricanes found life. Chad LaRose scored on a nice sell job on a pass before firing the puck past Mike Smith at 8:33. But then the Lightning controlled play for the next three minutes, and Smith did the rest. He stopped Jussi Jokinen on a cross-ice fed one-timer. He stopped LaRose in the slot. He helped snuff out two Carolina power plays. He made 42 saves, and was the difference-maker in a game against Ward, who should have been one for the Hurricanes.
Then again, this was Game No. 74 for Ward. This was a team whose second-leading scorer was an 18-year-old Hockey Bieber, and whose fourth-leading scorer Erik Cole played 82 games. Read that again: Erik Cole. 82 games. Incredible.
This was a group that played meaningful hockey until the last game of the season. But again, that's the sugar.
The sour truth is that they would have been in with a win, and couldn't win. And now comes an off-season in which no less than 10 players enter some form of free agency.
As for the Rangers, they get a rematch with the Washington Capitals, whom they took to seven games two years ago. And for the Caps who remembered another shot-blocking team with a strong goalie and some clutch scoring up front ending their postseason one year ago … well, something tells us they might have been pulling for the Canes tonight.
The Rangers saw their season end in Game 82 last season. They needed some unexpected help from John Tortorella's old friends in Tampa, but this time the last night of their regular season ended with the Rangers as a Stanley Cup playoff team.