An abrupt ending to an unexpected Hurricanes run, and a wakeup call

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Canes’ Justin Williams: ‘I didn’t think it would be done quite like this’

The Canes’ Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

The Canes’ Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

It’s hard to say this wasn’t how it was supposed to end, since they were never supposed to be here in the first place. There was the expected ovation of appreciation from the fans who stuck it out to the end, albeit dampened by the circumstances.

The Carolina Hurricanes’ wild month-long ride came to the tamest of ends, a sweep at the hands of a clearly superior opponent, while their captain – maybe at the end of his career, maybe just approaching it – was still in his gear long after his teammates had left the dressing room. Justin Williams took it harder than anyone else, perhaps knowing better than anyone else how rarely these opportunities arise and how few, if any, he may have left at age 37.

It will take a while for this run to find the proper perspective, and no one was in position to do that after a 4-0 loss to complete the Boston Bruins’ sweep of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday, the Prince of Wales Trophy presented on this ice for the third time, only once to the home team.

But in the tears and frustration and disappointment – and rank embarrassment over a rudderless power play that was inadequate all season and proved decidedly crippling in this series – there is at least a lesson in just how much this very young team has to improve to be competitive at this elite level.

“I know we learned how hard it is,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. “It’s going to be that extra little bit to get you over that hump to get you where you want to be and where you want to end up. It’s not easy to get where we got, so we’re proud of that. At the same time, we wanted more as a group, and I think the young guys in this room will definitely understand how hard it is and how difficult it is and they take that and use it in the future.”

The Hurricanes got through the Washington series on heart when the Capitals showed little, got all the breaks and made all the big plays in a relatively evenly played sweep of the New York Islanders and got their comeuppance against the Bruins, who are bigger, stronger, more skilled and better down the middle.

The Bruins’ stars played like stars, over and over again. The Hurricanes’ stars couldn’t measure up. In the cases of Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov in particular, you hope there’s a not yet attached there.

This wasn’t all Tuukka Rask, as good as he was. The better team doesn’t always win, but it usually does, and the Bruins were clearly the better team.

That’s the standard in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes now face a critical offseason to try to get closer to it.

“Now we know how hard it is,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We played a team that knows it and they said, ‘Thank you very much, you’re not getting it, done.’ We need to be that. We need to be that much better. (Aho), I’m looking at him, he needed to be a little better. And he knows it now. I believe it, because it happened to me, next time around, you’re a little hungrier. That’s what has to happen. That’s what (Boston) did. That’s why they’re still playing.”

For now, there’s still time to bask in an unexpected and welcome playoff run into mid-May and all the moments that went with it, Brock McGinn’s double-overtime Game 7 winner in Washington atop the list. To see the building (and parking lots) full again, to hear the building pulse again, to care about hockey again – it was all so long overdue, even if it ended so abruptly.

Whether this is the beginning of something, as the Hurricanes hope, or a one-year wandering, as their history has too often been, will depend in large part on what happens this offseason.

Merely making the playoffs was a welcome change from years in the hockey wilderness. A fourth straight run to the NHL’s final four was a bonus. The sweep was a wakeup call.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.