RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -This was supposed to be a weekend of fine-tuning for the Carolina Hurricanes before beginning another run through the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That was before the Hurricanes blew their chance to defend the Cup. When the NHL playoffs start next week, they'll be stuck at home wondering how their inconsistent, injury-plagued season went wrong.
"You feel like we had the right people in the room to make the playoffs and have another kick at the can, but we didn't do it," left wing Erik Cole said Thursday. "It's disappointing the season's over, but it's (more) disappointing that we had the right pieces and we couldn't get it done, so these next two games are going to be a good mental challenge for every guy individually."
The Hurricanes wrap up the season by playing Atlanta on Friday and Florida on Saturday in games rendered meaningless during the past two weeks. Their playoff hopes evaporated when they lost four of five since March 27.
Their official elimination came shortly after their latest setback at Tampa Bay, making Carolina just the third defending Stanley Cup champion to miss the playoffs and first since New Jersey in 1996. With Edmonton also out of the postseason, this marks the first time both Stanley Cup finalists failed to make the following year's playoffs.
"This is the best collection of players I've ever played with ... Not going to the playoffs, that's disappointing because we're capable of a whole lot more," defenseman David Tanabe said. "Obviously, the team went through last year, going deep into the playoffs, and not finishing up the season until June was a main factor and the reason why this group of guys, so talented, wasn't able to get it done."
Instead, while Carolina made comebacks commonplace during the run to its first Cup, this time the magic simply wasn't there.
"We found a way to win last year all the time, and this year we didn't," left wing Cory Stillman said. "We'd bring it for a game, and then it would slip by."
That frustratingly inconsistent play helped keep the Hurricanes from reaching the playoffs for a second straight year. Only once this season did Carolina win more than three straight games, with their five-game winning streak from Dec. 16-26 their most successful string.
"As a team, in order to make the playoffs, you need to win on a consistent basis - you need to win three out of five, four out of five, every night in segments," Stillman said.
But it's tough to establish a rhythm when several key players are out with injuries.
Frantisek Kaberle missed four months and Stillman missed two months after both players had offseason shoulder surgeries. Defenseman Bret Hedican had offseason operations on his hip and hand, then had his season cut short with a hip problem. Cole missed seven games with a torn muscle near his hip.
"We've gone through a lot of injuries. Obviously, the start (of the season) wasn't where we wanted it to be," Stillman said. "When I got back in, we still weren't as good as we wanted to be."
At least the Hurricanes won't have to deal with the short summer that always bothers Cup finalists. Now, there will be no shortage of time to consider what went wrong.
"Obviously, having a lot of time on our hands to heal and start training and rest and everything, we should be hungrier than ever coming back," Cole said.