The Hurricanes’ small glimmer of hope finally faded Saturday night, as the team’s loss to New Jersey, coupled with a victory by the Boston Bruins, officially ended any chance of a dream run to the playoffs.
While the disappointment is still somewhat fresh, the team still has an appreciation of how they rebounded from the season’s dismal start. During the franchise-record-tying 14-game winless streak in October and November, mathematical elimination seemed just days away, not months. That they were able to stay in the running until the season’s final week, posting a 23-13-3 record in 2010, says something about their second half.
“I think with some of the things that were part of the environment, there were so many man games (lost to injury) earlier in the year,” said coach Paul Maurice. “Then the right decision was made that we would have to lose some of our guys (through trades) that we weren’t sure we were going to able to sign next year.
“That had to happen when it happened, but to still be able to play as well with the kids that came in, I think that’s really good and it’s certainly made it easier for everybody to come to work.”
The kids have indeed been a bright spot, most notably Brandon Sutter. Originally recalled in October following Tuomo Ruutu’s suspension, he is now firmly entrenched as part of a one-two punch at center with Eric Staal for what figures to be many years.
Although Sutter is the most high-profile example, there are many others. In all, nine players aged 24 or younger played for the Hurricanes this season, six of whom were making their debuts with the organization.
“There’s questions of how many defensemen and how many forwards we’re going to need (in the offseason), but it would be so much more guesswork and hope,” said Maurice. “You’re looking at your center ice now and you know two of your pieces which is really important. Then you’ve got a defenseman (Jamie McBain) who offensively is almost right there, so those pieces are good.
“Having seen these players play, we have a far better appreciation for where they’re at right now and where they need to get to next year.”
While the focus has now shifted more towards 2010-11, there are still three games remaining in the current term. After an initial meeting with Tampa Bay, which is also out of the playoffs, the Canes will face two teams with plenty to play for in Montreal and Boston.
While acknowledging that things are a little different now, the Canes still hope to play at a high level this week.
“It’s just businesslike,” said Maurice. “You worry about the emotional level more than anything else. The preparation won’t change, and I think it’s probably key that you keep doing the things that you’ve done because there’s still work to be done.”
“We’ll want to finish on a strong note, even though it’s difficult to know that you’re not going to make the playoffs,” said Cam Ward. “You see fans tailgating on the way in and think about how much fun it would be.”
Speaking of Ward, the Canes still plan to test out the goaltender’s back before the season is done, despite some encouraging early results. He will likely play in at least two, and possibly all three, of the team’s remaining games.
“The general idea is that the trainers would like to see him (play) more instead of tailoring him down,” said Maurice. “We’re just in the process of getting everyone’s opinion here on where his back is at, and then we’ll make a decision on how many of these last three he’s going to play.”
“Now I’m at the point where I feel like my old self,” said Ward. “I was happy with the way things went the last few games with my health, and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”