Carolina Hurricanes Coach Rod Brind’Amour entered his team’s locker room last Thursday night having clinched the organization’s first postseason appearance in a decade and scanned the room. The Hurricanes’ first-year head coach first called out defenseman Justin Faulk, the 27-year-old NHL veteran who has spent his entire career with Carolina and scored the go-ahead goal to send his team into the playoffs.
“Eight,” Faulk answered, referring to how long he had been waiting for a taste of the postseason.
“Eight, grinding,” Brind’Amour replied. “Way to go.”
Brind’Amour then pointed his finger and moved onto defenseman Brett Pesce, then defenseman Jaccob Slavin and center Jordan Staal, all asking them the same essential question: How long have you been waiting for this moment as a Hurricane?
For Pesce and Slavin it was four years, and for Staal, who had won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and made his last playoff appearance in 2012 before being traded to Carolina, his answer was seven. No current Hurricane played for the franchise during its last postseason run in 2009. Ten Carolina players in its projected Game 1 lineup will be part of their first NHL postseason this week.
Headed into Game 1 of the first round series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes are the playoff darlings of the NHL, full of brimming energy and a grind-it-out attitude as they continue to wear their “bunch of jerks” label with pride, a nickname earned when their postgame celebrations earned analyst Don Cherry’s ire.
“You go into it and you use phrases like, ‘Nothing to lose’ and ‘Only positives can be gained from this’ and ‘We’re just going to play,’” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said of Carolina’s mindset. “They’re an extremely aggressive, fast young team that has strength all the way up and down their lineup and play a style of hockey that is exciting. Lots of pucks to the net and lots of action that way. So they’ve done a really good job and will be a difficult opponent for us.”
Led by captain Justin Williams, who was a Capital from 2015-17, the Hurricanes (46-29-7) are embracing their role as the underdog coming into the postseason. The Capitals projected Game 1 lineup has 1,282 games of playoff experience, while the Hurricanes projected Game 1 lineup has just 342, with Williams accounting for 140 of those. Williams has also been a part of three Stanley Cup winners.
“Obviously we’re the underdogs,” Williams told reporters in Carolina. “We’re playing the defending Stanley Cup champions. But do we feel like we are [underdogs]? No. We’re going to work our tails off and see, as I said [all] along, see how good we can be.”
The extremely aggressive, fast young squad that brought eccentric, choreographed victory celebrations (aka Storm Surges) to the ice after every home win – a display they do not plan on bringing to the postseason – also ignited a fanbase in a non-traditional hockey market.
It’s this attitude that has Carolina pegged as a potentially dangerous foe for the Capitals to face in the first round, a year after Washington fell into a 0-2 hole in its first round playoff series after two overtime losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Carolina is a great team,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “They're a young team and we gotta be aware of them at all times because they're dangerous. It's gonna be a fun test for us and we're ready.”
The Hurricanes know they lost all four of the regular season meetings with Washington, but in the postseason, that slate is wiped clean.
“You throw some wrinkles in here or there, but really, when you start changing what got to you to here, then that is probably not the best recipe,” Brind’Amour told reporters Tuesday in Carolina. “You got to just do what you do and that is what we are going to try to do.”
Player-wise for the Hurricanes, young forward Sebastian Aho has shined in his third NHL season, leading the team with 83 points (a career-high 30 goals, 53 assists) and will be a threat facing off against the Capitals’ defense.
The 21-year-old Finn averages just over 20 minutes of ice time per game and had six goals and eight assists through the team’s last 20 games of the regular season. Capitals forward T.J. Oshie described the Capitals’ task of matching up against Aho’s line as a “series within a series.” Fellow young Finn, 24-year-old center Teuvo Teravainen, had 76 points for the Hurricanes in the regular season (21 goals and 55 assists). In goal, the Hurricanes have used two goalies all season, but are expecting Petr Mrazek to start Game 1. Brind’Amour hasn’t ruled out the option of using both Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney in the playoffs.
“They’re an extremely aggressive, fast young team that has strength all the way up and down their lineup,” Reirden said. “And play a style of hockey that is exciting. Lots of pucks to the net and lots of action that way. So they’ve done a really good job and will be a difficult opponent for us.”