Mathematics, though bleak, beget a lingering sense of hope.
Then, with a 4-1 loss in New York on Tuesday night, that ever faint glimmer of hope dissipated, as the Carolina Hurricanes were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for the fifth straight season.
It was a frustrating finality, for sure, but three games still remain in the regular season.
“We need to win these hockey games. I’m trying to think of way to phrase this, but it doesn’t matter what mathematical elimination means. It means everything, and it means nothing at the same time,” defenseman Jay Harrison said. “We go out there and play for the front of our jersey and for the back – we have team pride and personal pride. It’s an honor to be here [in the NHL]. To not go out and give your best would be taking the privilege for granted, and I don’t think anyone intends to do that this weekend.”
“We’re going to push it right to end, play the game the right way and compete the right way. It’s our responsibility to do that,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “We’re not letting up on the things we’ve been talking about since day one, and we expect everyone to play the same way right until the end.”
Situationally, the balance of the season becomes undoubtedly different. But in terms of preparation, it’s just another handful of days at the rink.
“No, there’s not a chance [we change our preparation]. We prepare to win. We prepare our bodies physically and prepare our minds mentally the same way for every challenge,” Harrison said. “You can’t go into a game unprepared, regardless of the stakes.”
“We’ve got to keep everyone focused and in good habits. We’re all pros, and I think that’s important that we come to practice,” Muller said after running the team through a 45-minute skate on Wednesday. “Same approach, same focus and same preparation. Just push to the end.”
At the same time, there’s no denying the disappointment that is inherent with an imminent long summer, especially considering this has been the case in for five straight seasons.
“It goes without saying, obviously. I’m very disappointed,” captain Eric Staal said. “It’s a fine line between winning and losing, and we found ways to lose sometimes whether it was a breakdown or a special teams play or not bearing down on a chance. We just didn’t find a way to get the result at the end of the night.”
“It is disappointing,” Muller said. “As far as this year, I’m not happy that we didn’t make the playoffs, but I want to be around to change this thing around.”
“Unfortunately we’ve felt it the last couple of years in a row here. It’s all too familiar, perhaps. There’s a sense of deflation, initially,” Harrison said. “But you get back out there, run your reps and enjoy the game.”
Getting back out there for the Canes begins on Thursday when they host the Washington Capitals in their home finale.
As far as the game goes, Anton Khudobin will get the nod in net. Forward Nathan Gerbe, defenseman Ryan Murphy (upper body) and goaltender Cam Ward (upper body) are questionable. Defenseman Andrej Sekera (lower body) is being re-evaluated and remains doubtful. Forward Jiri Tlusty (upper body) is probable.
When the Canes host the Caps on Thursday, it’s game No. 79 of 82, and though the stakes are considerably less than game No. 78, the Canes are approaching it and treating it as if it were game No. 1.
“I want to push hard here for these next three games, and then we’ll address everything – good and bad – at the end,” Muller said.
“Just compete and work hard. It’s never fun being out of the playoffs and not playing for anything. But you come to the work, be a pro, work and compete,” Staal said. “We’ve got a home game against a divisional team we don’t like very much, and we’d like to squash it on them. Hopefully our guys come ready to play.”