RALEIGH — For about a decade, a convenient excuse for the Carolina Hurricanes’ inability to score was that they ran into a hot goalie.
There’s no doubt they did in the Eastern Conference Final.
Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask capped off a superb four games with a 24-save shutout effort in the Boston’s 4-0 series-clinching win in front of 19,041 Thursday at PNC Arena, completing a sweep and ending the Hurricanes’ unexpected run to the NHL’s third playoff round.
“It stings right now. It’s going to sting for a while, but then you do need to, at some point, reflect on what happened this year,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Super proud of this group. Super proud of this organization. We overachieved.”
The Bruins — as they have done all postseason, particularly in this series — dominated the Hurricanes in the special teams battle. Boston’s first two goals came on the power play, and the Bruins finished the series 7 of 15 with the man advantage. Carolina, meanwhile, was just 1-for-14 against Boston.
“It’s tough when you lose the special teams battle every single night against these guys,” a teary-eyed Justin Williams said following the loss. “I’m going to go to the side of Boston played great. They didn’t give us much, they played great and they’re going to be tough to beat in the Cup finals.”
Boston awaits the winner of the San Jose-St. Louis Western Conference Final, which the Sharks lead two games to one.
Whichever team advances will have to figure out a team that is firing on all cylinders, particularly in net and on special teams.
“Their power play was better, their penalty kill was better. And we couldn’t get any past Rask,” Williams said. “We scored one goal in two games at home, so that’s not going to get it done. But I’m not going to look for excuses. I always say they’re for losers. Just tip your cap and job well done by Boston.”
Carolina looked for early footing and to score the opening goal for the first time in the series. But after a goalless first period, the Bruins capitalized on their first power play.
With Williams serving a too many men on the ice penalty for Carolina, Boston’s Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak executed a nice give-and-go rush, finished by Pastrnak for his seventh goal of the postseason and a 1-0 Bruins at 4:46 of the middle frame.
Then late in the second, Hurricanes center Greg McKegg was called for goaltender interference after driving the net. The Bruins top line hooked up again, this time with Pastrnak setting up Patrice Bergeron for a one-timer that beat Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney (19 saves) with 86 seconds left in the period to give Boston a 2-0 lead heading into the final 20 minutes.
The Bruins sealed it by feasting on a rare mistake by Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin.
Slavin’s pass out of the defensive zone was deflected by Bergeron and went right to Pastrnak. Bergeron then circled the net and got a pass from Pastrnak, sweeping the puck into the open net for a 3-0 lead near the midway point of the third.
The Bruins added an empty-net goal, by Marchand, in the final two minutes to put the game and series away.
“Obviously it’s a bitter taste in the mouth, but probably over the next couple days we’ll realize what we did accomplish this year, and we’ll just use that as motivation to make it farther next year,” Slavin said.
That disappointment makes the accomplishment — and the team’s bright future — harder to focus on but still relevant.
All but one forward who played for the Hurricanes this postseason and is under contract for next year, Jordan Staal, is older than 26. The entire defense — seven deep with playoff experience plus former first-round pick Jake Bean — is locked in for next year. For the first time in years, the goaltending was solid, whether it was pending free agents Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney, or AHL goalie of the year Alex Nedeljkovic.
And the Hurricanes are loaded with draft picks. They hold their first round pick (which will be 28th or 29th) plus three second-rounders, which could make them players ion the trade or — gasp! — offer sheet markets.
And Carolina also doesn’t have to sell its promise anymore (even though they could with the likely arrival of Martin Necas in Raleigh next season). When prognosticators slot the Hurricanes into their playoff pictures in 2019-20, there will be no more, “Will this be year Carolina makes the postseason?” Instead, it could be: “Will Carolina take the next step in its path to Cup contention?”
“At the moment it stinks, you know?” Sebastian Aho said. “It hurts. It’s kind of a tough way to end the season. But we can look at the picture and remember this feeling and hope that it helps us in the future.”
And it could be a future with their captain, who didn’t sound like someone who was ready to hang up his skates just yet.
“Did I think we’d be here? Maybe not,” Williams said of the team reaching the conference final. “But we were going to see if we were good enough to get here. We’re good enough to be in the final four, that means we’re good enough to do it again next year and then get better and learn from this.
“It’s all the cycle of it. And right now it hurts, and it will for a little while.
Notes: Jordan Martinook missed the team’s final game, with Saku Maenalanen dressing for the second straight game. … The Hurricanes were curiously 1-6 when Micheal Ferland played this postseason, with the only win coming in Game 3 against Washington when he played just 2:08 before leaving the game with an injury. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and unlikely to return. … Rask is 12-5 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .942 save percentage this postseason. … Carolina finished the playoffs with an 8-7 record. … Bruins captain Zdeno Chara did not play Game 4 due to an undisclosed injury. John Moore played his first game of the series in his place. … The Charlotte Checkers begin their conference championship series with the Toronto Marlies on Friday. Bean, Patrick Brown, Haydn Fleury and Maenalanen are all eligible to rejoin the team for the balance of their postseason run.