"We can be proud of the fact that when things weren't looking our way, we found a way to make the playoffs and make it all the way to the third round. That being said, when you don't win the Stanley Cup it's disappointing, but we were one of the last four teams."
-- Cam Ward
After all, the ‘Canes defied the odds and extended their season for as long as they could, knocking off third-seeded New Jersey and top-seeded Boston before finally bowing to the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday to complete a four-game sweep.
There was simply no more give in the life line the Hurricanes had produced over the final 16 games of the regular season and the opening two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And despite the fact their hometown heroes would fall in four straight to the superior Penguins in the East final, the 18,680 in attendance rightfully saluted the 'Canes for the excitement they produced over the final month-and-a-half.
The Hurricanes overcame a deficit against Martin Brodeur and the Devils on goals by Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal in the final 80 seconds of Game 7 in the opening round. They sent top-seeded Boston packing when Scott Walker scored his first NHL playoff goal with 1:14 left in the first overtime in yet another seventh and deciding game in the conference semifinals.
"I've said all along that I don't know if it was at the All-Star break or after we had just lost five in a row (Jan. 8-17), but something switched for this team," Scott Walker said. "I've played a long time in this League and this is one of the closest teams I've ever been a part of. It certainly makes it easier when times are tough. No one believed in us except ourselves in the first two series and that was the difference. Everyone stuck together."
Their resilience and resolve was never questioned and their fight and competiveness never wavered.
"This team has been playing in playoff mode for an awful long time and that's your days, your life," coach Paul Maurice said. "Tomorrow, it's not going to be there, but I thought there was so much emotion in a lot of what we did."
The Hurricanes went 13-1-2 over a 16-game stretch from March 3 to April 7 to climb the Eastern Conference ladder and into the top eight to qualifying for the postseason for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Maurice took over behind the bench on Dec. 3 for his second go-round with the ‘Canes, taking over for the man who replaced him in 2003, Peter Laviolette. Carolina would go 33-19-5 under Maurice this season and, most importantly, earned its fifth playoff appearance in 11 seasons since the franchise relocated from Hartford.
In the playoffs, Maurice was the calming influence that General Manager Jim Rutherford envisioned when he made the coaching change.
There were a multitude of stories attached to this storybook season for the Hurricanes. Eric Staal scored 40 goals for the fourth-straight season, netting 13 goals and 29 points in Carolina's final 20 games. The Hurricanes were 7-1 in the playoffs when Staal scored and he finished with 10 postseason goals -- including one final marker in Game 4 against the Pens.
"I think it'll take a couple days to process what happened this season, but there was a lot of fight in this room," Staal said. "There was a lot of character and a lot of good guys and right now it just doesn't feel nice knowing that it all ends tomorrow."
One of Staal's favorite linemates, Erik Cole, returned to Carolina at the trade deadline on March 4 after spending the season's first six months with Edmonton. He scored 15 points in 17 regular-season games with Carolina. Winger Ray Whitney produced some of the best statistics in his 16 NHL seasons by reaching the 20-goal mark for the eighth time and eclipsing 70 points for the third time. Whitney finished with 11 points in 18 playoff games.
Jokinen was another huge surprise in the playoffs, posting seven goals and 11 points, and 5-foot-10 Chad LaRose came up big with four goals and 11 points.
Then there's goalie Cam Ward -- perhaps the biggest reason Carolina was able to muster such a sensational late-season surge in the first place. Ward started 28 consecutive games, going 19-7-2 with a 2.30 goals-against average, .922 save percentage and three shutouts to close out the regular season. Despite his shortcomings against the Penguins in the East Finals, Ward would finish with a 2.67 goals-against average and .915 save percentage to go with an 8-10 record in 18 postseason games.
"We can be proud of the fact that when things weren't looking our way, we found a way to make the playoffs and make it all the way to the third round," Ward said. "That being said, when you don't win the Stanley Cup it's disappointing, but we were one of the last four teams."
Maurice was tremendously grateful for having the opportunity to coach both Staal and Ward this season -- the two superstars of his team.
"If you make the playoffs, you've got a chance to win the Stanley Cup," Maurice said. "If you don't make the playoffs, all is wrong with the world. It's a completely different kind of pressure, and I think that they handled it very well all season long."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com