RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s no way to assess the precipitous end to the Carolina Hurricanes’ season without examining two sides of the same coin.
The Hurricanes made it to the conference finals for the first time since 2019, the second-best team in the Eastern Conference among the final two teams alive in the Eastern Conference, and did it without Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty.
And: They also were the highest seed remaining when they were swept by the eighth-seeded Florida Panthers in four straight one-goal games, with home-ice advantage in that round and the next. That was as clear a path forward to a Stanley Cup as they may ever see, an uncommon opportunity that may never arise again.
“Knowing how close you came to being able to play for it, it’s still — it definitely hasn’t worn off yet,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook said. “Every couple hours I’m trying to figure out how that happened. This one’s going to stick around for a while.”
Had they lost to the record-setting Boston Bruins, they would have had to tip their cap to the better team. And the Panthers are only a season removed from being the NHL’s best regular-season team, so not exactly the New York Rangers a year ago.
But it’s still the second year in a row when the Hurricanes lost to a lower-seeded team. The days when they could explain away running into a near-insurmountable roadblock — the Bruins, the Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning — are over, and while this ending isn’t nearly as inexcusable as a year ago, it’s even more inexplicable in its own way. They’re no longer playing with house money.
They’re also running out of chances with this group as currently constituted, which gets one more shot next season before the really tough decisions have to be made.
“We have this core group returning next year, and that’s exciting,” Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “There’s a lot of anticipation.”
At this time next year, Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas, Pesce, Brady Skjei and Teuvo Teravainen will all need new contracts, and Brent Burns and Slavin the year after that, which means the future for this core that seemed to stretch out endlessly a few years ago now has a finite and visible end of some kind, really for the first time.
This summer offers a preview of that, whether it’s unrestricted free agents like Jesper Fast and Jordan Staal — who said Friday he wants to come back — or in net, where the Hurricanes have to make room for Pyotr Kochetkov this season and both Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen are free agents.
The Hurricanes may also decide this offseason is the time to move Teravainen if they think they’re unlikely to re-sign him, or the time to sell high on Necas or Jack Drury, who struggled mightily in the playoffs.
For the moment, though, most of this group will have at least one more crack at it.
“The good thing is, we’re going to keep being a good team for a long time,” Aho said. “We just have to keep going.”
Beyond personnel, there’s the question of style, and whether the Hurricanes’ quantity-over-quality shot-volume approach needs modification for the postseason, where they’ve twice been eliminated by a hot goalie despite outchancing the opposition.
Finishing is a skill, and the Hurricanes tried to address that with Max Pacioretty last summer and will surely again this summer, but it’s also time for some clear-eyed self-scouting. What works over 82 games may not work in the minuscule sample of a best-of-seven series.
That said, the Hurricanes have no shortage of confidence that it can.
“I definitely think we’re going to get this done one of these years,” Pesce said.
There’s also the lingering question about whether the Hurricanes are tough enough for playoff hockey, which doesn’t mean fighting but the willingness to stand up for themselves and each other. As commendable as it is to play whistle to whistle and avoid retaliation penalties, those are few and far between in the playoffs. In nearly every scrum against Florida, a Panthers player was dragging a Carolina player out by his collar from behind while the Hurricanes did nothing. The Panthers played on the edge, The Hurricanes weren’t anywhere close to it.
When Matt Martin ran Staal from behind and cross-checked the prone captain in the first round, no one responded immediately because the puck remained in play. But even after the whistle, the Hurricanes all but ignored Martin, with only Martinook even approaching him. Opponents quickly got the message that they could take whatever liberties they wanted — like Radko Gudas repeatedly cross-checking a fallen Jack Drury in Game 1 — and dare the officials to call it.
Then the Hurricanes lost both games in Florida in part because of stick penalties, almost as if the officials felt an obligation to even things up instead of rewarding the Hurricanes for their discipline. Burns’ jab at Matthew Tkachuk after the first period of Game 4 was too little, way too late. What was the point of turning the other cheek only to get slapped?
The Hurricanes can get incrementally better and exponentially meaner. A team that made a motto out of “Bunch of Jerks” needs an actual jerk or two. Those players don’t always boost their shot totals, but they might help win you the kind of playoff series the Hurricanes have now lost twice.
It’s a little thing, but it’s down to the little things for this franchise now.