All the Carolina Hurricanes had to do to make the playoffs was win one game, at home, against a team that had nothing to play for. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning spoiled the party.
The Lightning stunned the crowd at the RBC Center by scoring three unanswered goals in the opening period on the way to a stunning 6-2 victory on Saturday night that knocked the 'Canes out of the playoff race.
"We worked our butts off all year to have this opportunity at home and we didn't get the job done tonight," captain Eric Staal said.
Carolina came into the game needing a victory to finish eighth after the New York Rangers beat New Jersey 5-2 in the afternoon, and the fans expected their 'Canes to do just that against a Tampa Bay team that was locked into fifth place in the East.
But the Lightning had no intentions of taking it easy -- not with a series against fourth-place Pittsburgh on the horizon.
"It was a great test for us because it was going to be a playoff game," said Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, who had a goal and an assist. "For (Carolina), it was a do-or-die situation. I thought it was good preparation for what's coming."
Instead, the Lightning jumped all over Carolina, scoring three times before the game was 14 minutes old and got 42 saves from backup goaltender Mike Smith to send the Rangers to the playoffs and the Hurricanes home for the summer thinking about missed opportunities.
"They've got guys that break loose and fly out of the zone that have a lot of skill and can put the puck in the net," said goalie Cam Ward, who finished with 29 saves. "They cashed in on their opportunities in the first period, and it was a pretty big hole to come out of."
Just 16 seconds after Carolina killed off a penalty to Joni Pitkanen, Dominic Moore opened the scoring by chipping a rebound over Ward's glove at 6:45. The Lightning then caught Carolina's defense pinching a few minutes later when St. Louis sprung Vincent Lecavalier for a breakaway, and Tampa Bay's captain slid the puck through Ward's legs at 11:19 for a 2-0 lead.
Steven Stamkos, mired in a late-season slump, made it 3-0 at 13:17, tapping a pass from Teddy Purcell into a half-empty net for his 45th goal and a stunning 3-0 lead. The Lightning finished the period outshooting the 'Canes 18-12.
"I think there's a chance it was shock at 3-0," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "Not the pressure. It felt right going out, and to come off a good night and felt good, and then, boom. It happened so fast that you're shell-shocked a little bit, and then the enormity of how much you put into it and where it's at, I think that made it difficult for us."
Carolina came out desperate in the second period, with the defense joining the play at every opportunity and forcing Smith to make a number of good saves, which he did -- and when Tampa Bay's Brett Clark scored on a wrister from the high slot at 10:53, Carolina's deficit grew to four goals.