When the game and the series was won, Jordan Staal had a good view but from the worst possible seat.
The Carolina Hurricanes captain was in the penalty box Wednesday at FLA Alive Arena. Called for tripping, he was left to sit and watch the Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk score a power-play goal with five seconds left in regulation for a 4-3 victory.
Just like that it was over — the game, the Eastern Conference Final, the Hurricanes’ season, their hopes of winning another Stanley Cup.
One Panthers tradition is to fill the ice with plastic rats during big win at home. As Staal skated back to the bench he had to skate around them.
Moments later, the final horn having sounded, Staal was in a handshake line he did not want to be in — nor expected to be in — when the series began. The Canes lost all four games, all intense, all incredibly close, the first two in overtime.
“It didn’t seem like a 4-0 sweep to me,” Staal said.
Staal had a few quick words with his two older brothers, the Panthers’ Eric and Marc Staal, and that was that.
“They’re never easy, no matter who you’re shaking hands with,” Jordan Staal said. “Obviously, excited for the ‘bros’ and they have a great opportunity in front of them. I hope they take advantage of it and play as hard as we would have if we moved on.”
The Canes could not have played much harder than they did Wednesday. They lost defenseman Jaccob Slavin early to a brutally hard but clean hit by the Panthers’ Sam Bennett. Forward Stefan Noesen was injured and eventually left the game. Martin Necas took a Brent Burns shot off a leg and hobbled off the ice but later returned.
Slavin, hit behind the net by Bennett 85 seconds into the game, did not return. Seen after the game in the locker room, he said was OK and that he had no problem with the hit.
“Obviously, losing ‘Slavo,’ he has been our rock back there ever since he’s been here,” Staal said “But our D corps played unbelievable.”
The Canes fell behind 2-0 but tied it up. They fell behind 3-2 but tied it up again on a goal by winger Jesper Fast, his sixth of the playoffs, with 3:22 left in regulation.
“That as a huge goal and I felt we had all the momentum in the game,” Canes center Sebastian Aho said.
Another overtime seemed possible, probable. But Staal was called for tripping defenseman Gustav Forsling with 57 seconds remaining in regulation.
Staal, one of the Canes’ most effective penalty killers, could only head to the box.
“It was a stupid penalty,” Staal said. “My stick went against my leg and then hit his leg. I don’t think I hit him very hard but apparently hard enough for him to fall down.
“It wasn’t a very good penalty and it wasn’t fun being in the box.”
That Tkachuk won it surprised no one. The forward wasn’t always a big factor during games, but when the games were there to be decided, he came up big.
Tkachuk’s late shot won the four-overtime thriller in Game 1. He knocked in a short shot in Game 2 for another OT winner at PNC Arena. Then, the power-play goal Wednesday.
The Canes, stymied and frustrated by goalie Sergei Bobrovsky the first three games, found a way to crack through against him in Game 4, with Paul Stastny, Teuvo Teravainen and then Fast scoring.
“We were right there,” Staal said. “The boys battled hard. We gave it all we got. I’m proud of this group. We’ve been kind of kicked in the crotch all year long, and we kept pressing and pushing, and tonight was no different.”
Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said his team “deserved a better fate” — in the game, in the series, in the season.
“Guys went down, we were losing our best players, but we just kept playing,” he said. “It was a tough way to end but I’m proud of what we built here.”