After the clock expired in Game 3, sending the Hurricanes to a 1-0 loss and 3-0 series hole to the Panthers in the Eastern Conference finals, frustration reached a boiling point.
A video of center Jesperi Kotkaniemi smashing his stick on his way to the locker room while rookie Jack Drury covered his face for protection circulated social media. Yelling could be heard coming from the area of Carolina’s locker room as the media waited to be let in.
When the doors were opened, team captain Jordan Staal sat alone, waiting in his stall — as he has done for countless losses during his 11 years with the franchise — to assess what might be his most frustrating defeat in his more than a decade with the Hurricanes.
“I think we start with one win here,” Staal said of looking ahead to Game 4, a refrain that has since been echoed countless times already in the 13 or so hours since Monday’s loss in Sunrise. “We continue to play like that, I think we’re gonna get a bounce and we’ll move on from there.
“I think it was right there again for us. Well take another stab at it and take Game 4 and go from there.”
The Hurricanes have been here before — and the “here” in that statement is doing a lot of work.
They’ve been “here” in struggling to score in the postseason. Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky has been nearly perfect, stopping 97.8% of the shots he’s faced in three games against Carolina. That has catapulted him into the lead for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and his only competition at the moment might be teammate Matthew Tkachuk, whose overtime goals in Games 1 and 2 helped bring the Panthers back to The Sunshine State with a two-game lead in the series.
But it’s also not new for the Hurricanes’ offense to dry up. In November, Carolina mustered just eight goals in five games, all losses. In last year’s seven-game loss to the Rangers, the Hurricanes managed just 13 goals in the second round series against Igor Shesterkin. In the 2021 playoffs, they scored nine goals in five games — and a combined two in three home games — against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning, losing that series 4-1.
The Hurricanes have also been “here” when it comes to the Eastern Conference finals. Carolina has now lost 11 straight games in the NHL’s semifinal series after sweeps by the Penguins in 2009 and Bruins in 2019 ended their quest to reach the third Stanley Cup finals in franchise history.
There are still links to that 2009 team — namely Brind’Amour and assistant coach Tim Gleason, who were both still players at that point.
But this edition of the Hurricanes still has several of the core players that made up that 2019 team.
Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Teuvo Teravainen and Staal were the top four scorers on that Carolina team in the postseason. Jordan Martinook — playing with, as he described to me near the end of the regular season, his groin torn off his pelvis during those playoffs — and Brett Pesce were on that team.
So were Andrei Svechnikov and Calvin de Haan, neither of whom have played in this postseason due to injury and coach’s decision, respectively.
That ’19 team, an upstart underdog not all that unlike the Panthers this season, was shut out in Game 4 against Boston.
This version is definitely a better team — more talented and more experienced than the one that crashed the postseason four years ago.
“Back in 2019, I think they were probably the better team and they were beating us because they were the better team,” Slavin said of the sweep at the hands of the Bruins. “Right now, it’s been three super tight games, two overtime games, another one-goal game last night. And so we’re playing good hockey, it’s just been unfortunate so far.”
The frustration from this series is that Carolina doesn’t feel it’s been outplayed.
“There’s times when you lose and you’re frustrated because you got beat,” Brind’Amour said after Game 3. “But it feels like we’re losing but we’re not really getting beat, and that’s where it gets frustrating.”
So there are two problems for the Hurricanes to solve. One, they need to — somehow, someway — figure out Bobrovsky. Secondly, they need to show they’ve learned from their past.
“This is new for me,” second-year winger Seth Jarvis said. “But lucky for me, we have a lot of veterans on our team, a lot of guys who have been in this situation and been on both ends of it. So they have all the guidance I need if I have any questions or anything.
“But I think right now we’re just trying to regroup and get ready for tomorrow. … It’s do or die for us.”