Gold: Canes ride new faces and a new culture back into the playoffs

April 5, 2019

April 4, 2009, exactly 10 years ago, was the last time the Carolina Hurricanes felt the surge of adrenaline you get when you know you’re headed for postseason hockey. On Thursday night, in front of 17,645 absolutely bonkers fans at PNC Arena, the Hurricanes and their new culture punched their playoff ticket with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.

10 years. A decade. Of nothing.

Thursday night, after a quiet start, and a 1-0 deficit, you could sense the growing dread. But, in a season that has seen rookies and newcomers play enormous roles, it was one of the least-heralded freshmen who brought the Hurricanes even and lit the building on fire.

Warren Foegele took a spectacular stretch pass from Dougie Hamilton midway through the 1st and beat Devils goalie Cory Schneider between the pads for the equalizer, and Carolina found their legs. Foegele, who for a while found himself a healthy scratch as Rod Brind’Amour was juggling an extra forward, didn’t play much after the midway point of the game, but was impactful every time he stepped onto the ice and scored his 9th of the year and for the second time in the last five games.

Hamilton’s second half of the season has been everything the Hurricanes thought they were getting in the offseason trade with Calgary. The smooth-skating Ontario native has 12 goals and 22 points in his last 33 games and has played the best defensive hockey, maybe of his entire career, over the last several weeks.

Nino Niederreiter, buried on a 4th line in Minnesota in early January and rescued by Hurricanes President/General Manager Don Waddell in exchange for Victor Rask, broke the playoff drought with a late 3rd period goal for a 3-1 lead that would prove to be the final score.

In 35 games for Carolina, Niederreiter has 14 goals and 29 points. He had nine goals and 22 points in 46 games with the Wild. Some of that is obviously opportunity, playing with Sebastian Aho and Justin Williams on a top line that guarantees you in the neighborhood of 20 minutes of ice time a night. But, at some point you have to earn it, and Nino earned every single bit of his ice and this will go down as one of the great mid-season trades in Hurricanes history.

Then, there’s goaltender Petr Mrazek. Over the summer, he bet on himself and signed a prove-it contract, just to re-establish himself as an NHL goaltender. And all he did was play Vezina Trophy-style hockey over the last third of the season. In Petr’s last 15 starts, he was 12-3-0 with a .941 save percentage and a high-octane personality.

Mrazek has been everything almost no one thought he could be for the Hurricanes. The organization has taken chances on Anton Khudobin, Eddie Lack and Scott Darling, with varying degrees of (non) success. Mrazek has been electric in ways that have to be seen to be believed and has been able to channel his emotions in such a positive way that his energy has helped fuel what the Hurricanes have done.

Need I say more?

We could be here all night, talking about how this team got from point A to point B. There will be time for that in the days leading up to and throughout the postseason. But, none of this is possible without the most important newcomer of all.

Rod Brind’Amour.

A first year head coach, with an impossibly young team, a totally imperfect roster that for almost half of the year had exactly ZERO experienced centers, incredibly managed to convince them that they were always doing the right thing. Somehow, even when it seemed that they were beating their heads against rocks, finding goals as easy to come by as a winning lottery ticket, Brind’Amour got his team to stick to the plan.

They bought what he was selling.

Over the first 37 games Carolina won 15 times. In spite of that Brind’Amour maintained essentially the same lines and the same thought process knowing — hoping? — things would turn around. Somehow, some way, it clicked. The goals started flowing and they’ve won 30 times since.

They believed in Rod because he believed in them. Not bad for a bunch of newcomers. And, because it’s been 10 years, 10 loooooong years, it feels like the first time all over again.

To you Caniacs, congratulations. So many of you, like these players, have stuck it out through the valleys hoping to experience the peaks. Well, the peaks are coming in less than a week.

Welcome back to the playoffs. Buckle up.

* Justin Faulk scored what proved to be the game-winning goal, on the power play, early in the second period. Not only did he effectively put the Hurricanes into the playoffs -- which for him will be the first time in his career -- but his power play marker was the 5th in the last 7 tries with the man advantage.

* The Hurricanes killed off three New Jersey power plays, holding the Devils to four shots.

* Sebastian Aho has now gone 13 games without a goal. He had two great chances, one on a cross-ice feed from Niederreiter the other on a breakaway in which he slid the puck just wide of the far post. He did have an assist, his 53rd of the year, on the Faulk power play goal. Teuvo Teravainen also assisted on the goal, his team-leading 54th.

* The Hurricanes close out of the season Saturday night in Philadelphia and can guarantee the first Wild Card position with a win. They could still finish 3rd if they win and the Penguins lose at home to the Rangers.