The Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins has been as much about how isn’t playing as who is.
A series that started with Carolina being without Brett Pesce but getting back Dougie Hamilton has morphed into one without two of the Bruins’ top players — Tuukka Rask and David Pastrnak — and a rotating cast of missing Hurricanes, from the surprise absences of Justin Williams and Sami Vatanen in Game 1 to injuries to Joel Edmundson and Andrei Svechnikov.
But neither team can blame who was missing with the way the best-of-seven series has unfolded through four games.
The Hurricanes seemed poised to tie up the series Monday night, holding a 2-0 lead with under 13 minutes remaining in the game. Instead, Carolina suffered an epic collapse.
The Hurricanes allowed four straight goals during a seven-minute span of the final period, turning a two-goal lead into an eventual 4-3 loss — a crushing body blow that pushed Carolina to the brink of elimination with Game 5 set for Wednesday at 4 p.m.
“We didn’t have an answer. It was tough to watch, that’s for sure,” a visibly despondent coach Rod Brind’Amour said following the loss. “I love this team. I love my guys. They learned a lesson today, though. … We just sat back and we let them take it to us, and that’s what championship teams do, they take it to you. So we’ve got to learn from that, for sure, but this one is going to sting for a while.”
One thing the Hurricanes don’t have is time to lick their wounds. Much like last year’s series between the two teams, the Bruins have imposed their will for long stretches of time, none more evident than a Game 4 third period that saw them outshoot Carolina 16-2.
“It’s the playoffs. You know that they’re going to come, you know how you need to do it to be successful,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook said Monday night. “And I don’t know — that’s probably on us (veterans). I guess we need to dial everybody in intermission more. We need to lead the way. It wasn’t there for us.”
Martinook and the 38-year-old Williams did show the way in the first two periods, scoring to give Carolina a two-goal cushion that seemed secure.
But goalie James Reimer — who stopped 93 of the 96 shots he had faced since play resumed in the Toronto bubble, including stopping Boston’s first 23 Monday — made a crucial mistake in the third period.
With the Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk racing past Carolina defenseman Haydn Fleury for a loose puck and potential breakaway, Reimer attempted to get there first, diving at the hash marks to knock the puck away. Instead, DeBrusk won the race and scored — and started a rally that left the Hurricanes searching for answers.
“That was, quite frankly, as ugly of a period as I’ve seen us play,” Williams said. “You have to take ownership of it. … The whole period was certainly not we’re accustomed to, and we got it handed to us.”
For Williams, who had promised the team had “more to give” following its lackluster Game 3 loss, there may be more than the team’s season hanging in the balance. He — like Brind’Amour, his linemate on Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team — had made it his mission to help reestablish the Hurricanes as more than an afterthought on the NHL landscape, and his mid-season return this season has been viewed as many a last hurrah for the three-time champion.
Again facing elimination at the hands of the Bruins, who swept Carolina out of the Eastern Conference Final last year, the Hurricanes will need to move past Monday’s nightmare if they have any chance of extending the series. If they can’t, it could mean the end of the season, possibly Williams’ playing career and some reflection from a coach who has always prided himself of hard work and buy-in above all other characteristics.
“I wanted to make people that support this organization proud of how we play, you know?” Brind’Amour said of pursuing the head coaching job two summers ago. “I think we’ve done that for most of the time that I’ve been here, and (Monday) we didn’t. And that that’s the most disturbing thing.
“So we’ve got to pick the pieces up and make sure we put an effort forward that you can say, ‘Hey, that’s how it should look’ and be proud of it, win or lose. You gotta be proud of how you play and that didn’t happen tonight.”