Playing out the string against a Florida Panthers team that was preparing for the playoffs last week, the Carolina Hurricanes started slow and paid the price in a 5-2 loss on Saturday night to close out the 2015-16 season in Florida.
The game featured a few too many of the defensive breakdowns that have plagued the team in many of the losses in the last quarter of the season. The Canes started slow, had a couple turnovers in the neutral zone and failed to cover up quickly enough in transition. The result was a fast 0-3 deficit only 8 minutes into the game. The Canes did wake up, rebound and push back. Elias Lindholm scored on a nice play in close to pull the Canes to within 3-1 in the second period, and Jordan Staal helped the Canes close to 4-2 just before the midway point of the third period. Jeff Skinner who needed 2 goals to get to 30 came within an inch or 2 twice. First, he had a shot trickle most, but not all, of the way across the goal line behind Luongo. Then late in the third period Skinner ripped a shot that went off Luongo’s glove and off the post. In the end, the almosts were just not enough, and the early deficit was too much to overcome.
Though the ending was disappointing, the season overall was a significant improvement from 2014-15. The team jumped from 71 points to 86. Even more significantly, the team did it by adding very young but already very good players to the lineup. The blue line added 3 rookies 21 years old or younger in Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. And Phil Di Giuseppe stepped up at forward. There is both work to do for Ron Francis this summer, but for the first time since he took over as GM, there will also be some budget for it. Projecting anything before seeing an opening day roster is a bit premature, but I believe the Canes chance of making the playoffs next season is as great as it has been at any time in the past 5-6 years.
A few player and other notes:
1) Jordan Staal
It was great to see him finish a good season with a strong final game notching his 20th goal and also an assist. He rightfully won the team MVP award on Thursday night and will be looked at as 1 of the players to lead the Canes back to the playoffs.
2) Noah Hanifin
He finished his rookie season strong. In his last 3 games, he had the pretty shootout game-winner, a goal on Thursday and an assist on a heady play at the point to make a shooting lane and get the puck through for a Jordan Staal tip. He is 1 of 2 players eligible to join the Charlotte Checkers. (Phil Di Giuseppe is the other.) It will be interesting to see if Ron Francis’ exercises the ability to get Hanifin a couple more games and also possibly a taste of professional playoff hockey.
3) A temporary team?
I have not made a final decision, but I am leaning toward the Florida Panthers as my adopted team for the playoffs. They meet the basic requirements of being an underdog both as a team (despite winning the division) and a hockey market. And what is not to like about the combination of old man Jagr and an up and coming youthful team?
Next up is another long offseason but 1 with more promise than any other recently.