Hurricanes clinch playoff spot, still have everything to gain over final three weeks

On the night the Carolina Hurricanes clinched a fifth straight trip to the playoffs, an anticlimax if there ever was one and not only because of the result, it was hard to shake the sense that there was still so much to play for over these final 11 games.

Thursday was a brutal reminder of just how much the Hurricanes would stand to gain by finishing ahead of the New Jersey Devils and avoiding the New York Rangers in the first round. The longer they can avoid the guys who ended their season a year ago, the better.

If Thursday felt like playoff hockey, well, nothing feels more like playoff hockey circa 2022 than losing 2-1 to the Rangers while outshooting them 30-16 — including 12-0 at five-on-five in the first period with only a goal to show for it — and going 0-for-3 on the power play.

That’s all too familiar.

In the wake of that, when Sebastian Aho was informed that the Hurricanes had still secured a playoff spot thanks to the Florida Panthers’ regulation loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, he replied “that’s awesome,” with all the enthusiasm of a man told his dentist would be able to fit him in after all for an emergency root canal.

Still, even if five straight years coming off the Dismal Decade is a streak worth recognizing, the absence of any fanfare at all in a silent dressing room was significant in its own right, and in contrast to the wild celebration of five years ago. Rod Brind’Amour had to be told the Hurricanes had clinched, and even he had barely more than a shrug to offer.

“Is that what happened? Then you know what? We should be happy,” Brind’Amour said.

And later: “It says a lot about the group that it’s not what we’re playing for.”

Brind’Amour is right, of course: This isn’t what they’re playing for. The goalposts long ago shifted, and what was once a finish line of itself is now merely a milepost along a much longer road.

But how long is that road going to be if the Hurricanes have to start against the Rangers?

This was another chapter in a book full of frustration, yet another game in which the Hurricanes outplayed the Rangers between the boards but not on the scoreboard. Frederik Andersen didn’t let them down, almost single-handedly turning aside a full 109 seconds of two-man advantage in the first period, and the Hurricanes still couldn’t win the special-teams battle.

They had chance after chance after chance, and other than an Aho ripper on the rush, couldn’t get anything past Igor Shesterkin. An old story.

“We put that effort in, most nights I like our chances,” Aho said.

There’s truth to that, especially coming 48 hours after a furious third-period comeback to beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, but it’s the same trap the Hurricanes fell into in their second-round loss to the Rangers last May. The scoring arc of the hockey universe may bend toward the team with more chances, but over a finite number of games, a hot goalie or a hot power play or sheer bad luck — and sometimes all three — can overwhelm the tide.

That’s what happened against the Rangers last year over seven games, and Thursday over 60 minutes. Win or lose, who wants to go through that again? Right away, at least. Especially without Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty.

Better to play whichever Metropolitan Division foe limps into the playoffs in the first round while the Devils and Rangers beat each other into a pulp. The Hurricanes can put themselves in that position by staying ahead of the Devils over the final four weeks.

“Can we finish somewhere up there?” Brind’Amour said. “Does it really matter? I don’t know. You’re going to be playing somebody good.”

Thursday was proof it really matters.

They’re in.

But they’re not done.

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