In their minds, they were still ready for overtime, for what would have been the third time in the series. The end came so quickly, it was almost impossible to comprehend.
The Carolina Hurricanes fought back twice to tie the score, their season on the line, ready to carry the battle into another 20 minutes, only for Matthew Tkachuk to beat them.
With 4.9 seconds to go.
If there’s a more painful way to end an excruciating playoff series, science is going to have to get back into the lab.
“Really confused,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said. “I don’t know if confused is the right word but obviously, don’t know how did that happen. It didn’t feel like a 4-0 series to me, but it is what it is.”
The Florida Panthers won four one-goal games — two in overtime, three on Tkachuk goals that left the Hurricanes no answer — to sweep the Hurricanes, bookended by a quadruple overtime win in Raleigh in Game 1 and Wednesday’s 4-3 win on a late power play, given for a tripping call on Jordan Staal behind the Florida net that was patty-cake compared to the gross bodily harm allowed over the previous 19 minutes.
It was only the fifth sweep in NHL history to be decided by a total of four goals, and Wednesday’s game was as close as any of them. The Hurricanes twice fought back from behind — including the first two-goal deficit of the series — after giving up a goal in the first minute and losing Jaccob Slavin to a presumed concussion in the first 90 seconds, and were five seconds from a chance to potentially salvage the game, the series and their season in overtime.
“Deserved a better fate, I think so,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
So the Panthers will play for the Stanley Cup instead. As he did in 2002, Paul Maurice has steered an underdog to a series of upsets and a chance to play for the Cup. This time it was at the Hurricanes’ expense, thanks in large part to the impeccable goaltending of Sergei Bobrovsky.
And the Hurricanes will wonder how it all went so wrong, so fast — never really out of any game but now entirely out of the postseason nevertheless.
“Would you expect anything less?” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook said. “I don’t want to use the narrative that we lost this guy, we lost that guy. In the grand scheme of things we lost two pieces, two huge pieces. That’s no excuse. We’re right there. Whatever, they swept us. But they won two overtime games, scored with four seconds left. Last game, (won by) one goal when we dominated them. It definitely doesn’t feel — I don’t know what I feel right now. It doesn’t feel real.”
Another year has passed. Another opportunity gone. Another sweep in the conference finals, the third straight since 2006. Another year ticks by for this core, which came closer this season than any to justifying the excitement that has built around it, only to come to this most ignominious end.
There will be time ahead for debriefings and recriminations, farewells and departures, and decisions to be made up and down the roster, starting with impending free agent and captain Staal. In this moment, there is only the disappointment of falling short, again, and with as clear a path forward as they ever could have wanted.
The Hurricanes went into the playoffs with the second-best record in the league, had to dig a little deep to dispatch the New York Islanders and a little less deep to do the same to the New Jersey Devils, and even though they were missing Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty, they finally caught what looked like a break: The Atlantic Division spit out the 8th-seeded Panthers.
Getting to this round was always where the bar was set for this team, especially after the disheartening second-round loss to the New York Rangers last spring. Thanks to results elsewhere, without the record-setting Boston Bruins looming, everything seemed set up for the Hurricanes to finally get their chance to play for the Stanley Cup, with home-ice advantage in their pocket no less.
The pace of upward progress the Hurricanes have been on since 2019 seemed destined to carry them even farther this year, but they ended up back in the same place they were then, swept at this hurdle, even if the manner of their dismissal was entirely different.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Martinook said. “It’s hard. There’s been eight of us here, nine of us here for five years. This one felt different. It still feels different and we’re done. I don’t know. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It feels like you got run over by a bus, emotionally.”
Speaking of getting run over by a bus: The Florida fans were still celebrating Anthony Duclair’s opening goal when Sam Bennett caught Slavin coming from behind the net in a hard but clean hit not unlike the one Andrei Svechnikov laid on Hampus Lindholm last year in the first round.
Slavin fell to the ice immediately, arms extended in the fencing response, the telltale sign of a traumatic brain injury. Like Ron Francis 22 years ago, he tried to stand, and tumbled onto the back of the net. Trainer Doug Bennett escorted him off the ice. By the time 11 minutes were gone, the Hurricanes were down 2-0.
As nightmare starts in elimination games go, it was close to a worst-case scenario. Last year’s Game 7 against the Rangers, when the Hurricanes went down 2-0 in the first 12 minutes and Antti Raanta was injured, is also in contention.
But it wasn’t over, not even close. That two-goal lead lasted only 100 seconds. The Hurricanes put two goals past Bobrovsky, finally, on six shots after he had stopped 72 in a row. The Panthers went ahead again, only for Jesper Fast to answer. They thought they were headed to overtime, and then in less than a minute, it was over.
“Personally I don’t think that’s a penalty,” Aho said. “Coming back, fighting to tie the game, all the momentum in the game to go into OT, and then that happens.”
It was one final kick in the teeth in a series that’s been a seemingly endless series of them. Even the very end would be by the slimmest of margins, a season of promise cut short by mere seconds, again and again and again and again.
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This story was originally published May 24, 2023, 11:57 PM.