HIGHLIGHTS | PHOTO GALLERY | STATISTICS
The sequence during which the Lightning scored the first goal of the game - what held up as the game-winning goal - was a frustratingly perfect encapsulation of this series in just a minute's time.
At the start of a penalty kill early in the second period, Jordan Staal raced down the ice with Vincent Trocheck on a shorthanded 2-on-1 break. Staal snuck a pass through Victor Hedman onto Trocheck's tape, but Andrei Vasilevskiy exploded across to his left to deny the grade-A scoring opportunity.
Less than a minute later, the Lightning re-entered the offensive zone and quickly created a 2-on-1 opportunity. Alex Killorn fed Brayden Point, who dangled backhand-forehand-backhand for the goal.
Video: CAR Recap: Hurricanes drop Game 5, 2-0
Vasilevskiy makes an incredible save at one end. The Lightning score a power-play goal at the other.
That's the game, and that was the series.
"It's such a small margin. Games can go either way. If I have to say one, it's got to be the special teams. Today, they got a power-play goal, and that's the game-winning goal. We didn't get any," Sebastian Aho said. "It needs to be better."
Ross Colton added a dagger a little more than nine minutes into the third period, and Vasilevskiy, though the Canes seemed to figure him out somewhat in Games 3 and 4, appeared at most other times impenetrable. He capped the series with a 29-save shutout, his third career playoff shutout, which have all come in clinching game scenarios.
The Canes knew that, in order to have a shot at getting by Tampa Bay in the second round, they had to stay out of the box and not allow the league's most lethal man advantage to jump over the boards.
In the end, the Canes were 2-for-14 on the power play, and the Lightning were 7-for-16. Tampa Bay was surgical, even against the Canes' aggressive penalty killers.
"We have to be better obviously. We got beat in a lot of different aspects in that series. Throughout the lineup, including myself, there are guys who need to be a little bit better," Jordan Staal said. "We need to be more committed to our system and play it stronger. We're right there and very close, but that's a very good team that obviously got the better of us."
In the end, the Lightning's high-end skill - on the power play and in net - won out.
"Right now my biggest takeaway is how do we get better? We were good all year, but when you get up against the best, that's the great comparison," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "They're a great team for a reason. There's no weaknesses. They've got the best goalie in the world and probably the best couple players in the world. They're stacked everywhere. Great coaching. They don't miss a beat. They've got it all."
This year felt different. It felt special.
The Canes stormed their way through the 56-game regular season, assembling one of their best seasons in franchise history and securing first place in the Central Division, the team's first division title since 2005-06 and fourth since arriving in North Carolina.
They won 36 games. They earned 80 points. They made their third appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They were likely going to have to go through the defending Stanley Cup champions to make a deep run - and that's exactly the match-up they drew in the Second Round - but why not? Why not the Canes?
"I'm always proud of these guys. That's the thing that's great. You come to the room, and you have a group of people that leave it out there," Brind'Amour said. "We're obviously disappointed. This is not we started out to have. We wanted to win it all. It's tough. I think everyone is disappointed right now, but I'm always proud of the group. When we started this three years ago, it was to get relevant and expect to win, and we do now."
The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs felt like a fever dream. The Canes made a seemingly improbable run to break their decade-long playoff drought. They knocked off the defending champions and swept a series before the magic dissipated in the Eastern Conference Final.
The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, in all their uniqueness and weirdness and improbability, were a learning experience. The Canes asserted their dominance and swept their way through the Qualifiers but, for the second straight year, were ousted by the Boston Bruins.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs - after a season that was one-of-a-kind, challenging, a whirlwind, a roller coaster, a thrill - were supposed to be different. The Canes had earned it, and then they had to prove it, but they fell short.
"We had, in our minds, something different than this. I thought we were ready to take the next step. The next step is to be the best, right?" Aho said. "A lot of good things. I'm proud of the effort. I'm proud of the group. I really enjoyed this year with these guys, but at the same time, it's not a step forward because we didn't get the ultimate goal."
So, while this is where this ends, the story of this season is not yet finished. An epilogue will follow. But, for now, this is the end of the road, an end that arrived far too prematurely.
But that's the bitter, cold finality of an ending.
"You always learn from losing. You just do. Well, you better. This one feels a little different than the other ones because we have been around a little more. What do you learn?" Brind'Amour pondered. "We have to be that much better. We need 20 guys. You really need to have everybody at the top of their game to beat the best team. That's why it's so hard to win this thing. That's why it's the greatest trophy to win. So much has to go into it. Everyone has to get a little bit better."