The Carolina Hurricanes feel they’re close to where they need to be to compete for the Stanley Cup, but their elimination by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Second Round reminded them there’s still much work to be done.
“They’re a great team for a reason, there’s no weaknesses,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after a 2-0 loss in Game 5 on Tuesday. “They’ve got the best goalie in the world, got the best couple of players in the world, they’re stacked everywhere, and they have great coaching. They don’t miss a beat. We were good all year, but when you get up against the best, that’s a great comparison, right? To see, ‘OK, well, that’s how it’s done.'”
The Hurricanes struggled against Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy throughout the series and had no answer in Game 5, either, when he made 29 saves for his second shutout of the postseason.
Another area of concern was special teams. Carolina was second on the power play (25.6 percent) and third on the penalty kill (85.2 percent) during the regular season, but were 2-for-14 on the power play (14.3 percent) and 9-for-16 (56.3 percent) on the penalty kill in the best-of-7 series.
“Today they got a power-play goal that’s a game-winning goal, and we didn’t get any. That’s the game,” Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho said. “Guys who play power play and penalty kill need to be better. I’m one of those guys who plays a lot of special teams, so I have to be better as well.”
The Hurricanes have reasons to be optimistic. They have a good, young core led by Aho, a 23-year-old who led Carolina with 57 points (24 goals, 33 assists) in 56 regular-season games. He also led them in the playoffs with 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 11 games. Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic made a big impact this season, going 15-5-3 with a 1.90 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts and is a finalist for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL rookie of the year. The 25-year-old started all but two playoff games and was 4-5 with a 2.17 GAA, .920 save percentage and one shutout.
The Hurricanes have made the playoffs three straight seasons after not qualifying for nine consecutive seasons. The Lightning reminded them what they need to do to take the next step.
“We’re going to have to learn from it, obviously, if we’re going to want to get to the next level and be an elite team,” Carolina captain Jordan Staal said. “We have a lot of really good, young players who are understanding the games and understanding how to win, but we still have to find a way to be better in all aspects, including myself. I think we’re right there, we’re very close, but a very good team obviously got the better of us.”