Ending the regular season without a playoff berth is not what the Carolina Hurricanes expected one year after winning the Stanley Cup. A sixth straight year out of the postseason isn't what the Florida Panthers had in mind either.
The Hurricanes look to continue their home dominance over the Panthers on Saturday night when the Southeast Division rivals close disappointing seasons.
Carolina (39-34-8) was officially eliminated from postseason contention with a 3-2 loss Tuesday at Tampa Bay. The Hurricanes became only the third defending Stanley Cup champion to miss the playoffs the next season and the first since New Jersey in 1996.
The late-season struggles continued for Carolina as it lost for the fifth time in six games, 4-1 to visiting Atlanta on Friday.
"When things are going well, things are bouncing your way and in," center Eric Staal said. "When things aren't, it tends to drag and be more difficult. They just don't seem to be hitting the back of the net as easily as they were at other times. It's been frustrating for sure."
Unlike last season when the Hurricanes acquired Doug Weight and Mark Recchi to spur their championship run, their only move this year was getting right wing Anson Carter from Columbus. Carter's goal Friday was his first point in 10 games with his new team.
Another reason why Carolina will spend the playoffs at home is decreased production from Staal, who has 68 points this season. Staal was seventh in the NHL in 2005-06 with a career-high 100 points.
But the Hurricanes have excelled is against the Panthers. Carolina has won nine straight home games against Florida and is unbeaten in 11 in a row at the RBC Center since a 2-0 loss on Dec. 6, 2002. The Hurricanes have won six straight overall in the series since losing the first meeting this season.
Rod Brind'Amour leads Carolina in scoring against Florida with three goals and seven assists. Backup goaltender John Grahame is 4-1-0 with a 2.73 goals-against average in five games this season against the Panthers.
Despite a late surge, the Panthers (35-31-15) will miss the playoffs again. A point in this game, however, will give them 86, their most since the 1999-2000 team had a franchise-record 98.
Florida played the role of spoiler Friday, coasting to a 7-2 victory at Tampa Bay that prevented the playoff-bound Lightning from winning their third Southeast Division title in four seasons.
"We knew how much this game meant to them, and to come in for my first time and play in this kind of environment and contribute was special," said rookie Janis Sprukts, who scored his first NHL goal in the second period to make it 5-0.
Captain Olli Jokinen had a goal and an assist and Ville Peltonen set up three scores for the Panthers, who improved to 4-1-2 in their last seven games.
Jokinen has seven goals and 12 assists in his past 10 contests and is one point away from matching last season's career high of 89. He has six goals and seven assists against the Hurricanes in 2006-07.
Ed Belfour, who made 20 saves Friday, is 0-1-3 with a 3.19 GAA against Carolina this season.