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One of Hockey’s Best Teams Is Falling Apart When It Matters Most, Again

SportOne of Hockey’s Best Teams Is Falling Apart When It Matters Most, Again

RALEIGH, N.C. — This column won’t be fair. Not really. Not when a bounce here, a whistle there, a lucky break somewhere, anywhere, could have changed the entire complexion and narrative of this series, of this team, of the very perception of this organization. Not when this team has looked so strong at five-on-five, not when the ephemeral nature of special teams is the root cause of its current ills, not when every game it plays — and every damn game it loses — seems to be decided by one goal, one shot, one deflection. Not when this team has enjoyed the longest sustained run of success in the history of the franchise.

But we need to talk about the Carolina Hurricanes.

Not in the same sentence as the Toronto Maple Leafs — that’s too harsh, too melodramatic. But in the same paragraph.

Because it’s not working. It hasn’t worked. And it appears it won’t work.

You know by now what the Hurricanes are all about. Depth over elite finishers. Quantity of shots over quality. Relentlessness over resourcefulness. Goaltending that’s always good enough, never great enough. It works so beautifully, so majestically, from October through April. But it hasn’t worked in May, and they haven’t even made it to June.

Carolina is an organizational marvel, one of the best-run and most forward-thinking front offices in the league. The Hurricanes have built a monster, a team that’s so deep, so fast, so effective, so ferocious on the forecheck. They win battles. They retrieve pucks. They wear down opponents. They won the NHL’s rough-and-tumble Metropolitan Division three years in a row before getting barely edged out by the Presidents’ Trophy-winning New York Rangers this season by 3 points. They’ve finished among the top three teams in the league in each of the past four seasons. The analytical models adore them, the bettors favor them, and the hockey men and computer kids alike respect them.

Then the playoffs come around, and, well, this happens.

The Hurricanes are on the brink again, trailing their second-round series against the Rangers 3-0 after Artemi Panarin’s acrobatic tip-in 1:43 into overtime Thursday night gave New York a 3-2 victory. It was a gut-wrenching way for Carolina to lose, especially after Andrei Svechnikov scored the equalizer with 1:36 left in regulation, sending the cacophonous PNC Arena into absolute bedlam. It felt like that could be a turning point in the series. Instead, it just became another turn of the knife.

It was just as cruel in Game 2 on Tuesday night, when the Hurricanes lost in double overtime at Madison Square Garden. And when they lost 4-3 in Game 1. And when they lost all four games of last season’s Eastern Conference final against the Florida Panthers, each by one goal, two of them in overtime, one of them in quadruple overtime, the sixth-longest game in NHL history. Their last eight postseason losses have come by one goal, five in overtime.

Always chasing one more goal. Always trying to get over the hump. Never quite getting there.

“It’s a little bit of a broken record,” Canes captain Jordan Staal said quietly Thursday night. He was talking about another game in which special teams — such a strength all season — betrayed Carolina. The league’s second-best power play went 0-for-5 for the third straight game. The Hurricanes even allowed a short-handed goal to Chris Kreider and two more prime short-handed chances on top of that.

But Staal could have been talking about the bigger picture, too. Because we’ve seen this May frustration too many times now.

If you count the Play-In round of the 2020 bubble playoffs, Carolina has won a postseason round in six straight seasons. It’s the kind of sustained run of competitiveness that most of the league would do anything to attain. But Carolina hasn’t won a single game beyond the second round in those six seasons, swept in the Eastern Conference final in 2019 and 2023. The Hurricanes Way works extremely well in the regular season. It makes quick work of wild-card-level playoff teams, such as the New York Islanders the past two seasons.

But against other elite teams — the ones with all-world players such as Panarin, or Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov, or Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, and all-world goalies such as Igor Shesterkin or Sergei Bobrovsky or Andrei Vasilevskiy — they come up just short. Agonizingly short. So short that it feels like a toss-up every time, that it feels unfair to hold those losses against them, that it feels like the hockey gods are just toying with them in their own cruel way.

But still short. Always short.

And so Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour can say ad nauseam that he has loved Carolina’s five-on-five game against the Rangers. He should. The Hurricanes were the better team at evens in all three games. And we can point to Pyotr Kochetkov’s brilliant pokecheck of a Kreider breakaway in the final minute of regulation or any number of Frederik Andersen saves in the first two games. And we should. Both goaltenders were solid. And we can point out that Carolina acquired the finisher it’s always lacked in Jake Guentzel and that he has scored three goals in the past two games. And we should. He’s been as advertised.

But eventually, trip-ups become a trend, stumbles become a signature. And though the extremity of each situation varies wildly, the Hurricanes find themselves in a similar situation to the Maple Leafs, who have turned “run it back” into a punchline, running into a brick wall spring after spring after spring. The Canes are better than the Leafs. The Canes have accomplished more than the Leafs. The Canes are built as the polar opposite of the star-laden, top-heavy Leafs. But the Canes have won the Stanley Cup as many times as the Leafs. That’s what it’s about, right? Both have been constructed to win championships. Neither has come all that close.

Toronto fired coach Sheldon Keefe on Thursday. Carolina obviously won’t be doing the same with Brind’Amour, one of the best coaches in the league. He’s due a new contract, but it’s unfathomable for the franchise icon to be behind the bench anywhere else. He’ll be back. But Carolina can rethink things. The top duo of Sebastian Aho and Svechnikov are locked up long-term, but the roster is rife with pending free agents. General manager Don Waddell will have the kind of cap flexibility most contenders can only dream of. Waddell can pursue more high-end talent up front and maybe in goal. Brind’Amour can tinker with his system, maybe loosening the structure and the strictures of Carolina’s dump-and-chase, funnel-pucks-to-the-net-from-anywhere-and-everywhere style and encouraging more creativity, more offensive boldness. Something. Anything. Because the Rangers attack the net. The Hurricanes just shoot at it.

Barring a historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit that renders this column and this narrative more moot than the foolish notion that hockey can’t thrive in a southern market, Waddell and Brind’Amour have to decide whether they, too, want to run it back. Or if it’s time for something different.

“It’s a new day tomorrow,” Staal said. “It’s gonna hurt tonight — won’t get much sleep. But we’ll have a new day tomorrow, and we’ll find a way to win one game. It’s been our model here for a long, long time.”

And it’s worked for a long, long time. Just not quite well enough. Just not when it matters the most.

(Photo of Martin Necas: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)


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