Saturday May 9th, 2009

They are starting to dot the stands at RBC Arena in Raleigh like dandelions on a spring lawn, makeshift Carolina Hurricanes jerseys with the No. 36 on the back.

This is hockey's Jussi Couture.

Along with the standard-issue Staal and Brind'Amour sweaters, the sartorial-resplendent Caniac now swaddles himself in a homemade version of the jersey of Jussi Jokinen, who would be the unsung hero of the playoffs if not for the raucous fans in Section 328 who Friday broke into third-period chants of "U.C," their best English approximation of the Finnish name. Jokinen later said he could never remember hearing his name called from the stands, but then he's never exactly been a name player.

When the Hurricanes picked him up in a Feb. 7 trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning -- the Lightning already had waived him twice at this point -- the hockey world hardly blinked. The J in his names is pronounced like a Y, as in "yawn." Although Jokinen had scored eight power-play goals as a rookie in Dallas in 2005-06, he still was widely considered a one-trick shootout pony with a nifty one-handed dangle move. He wasn't about to change the balance of power in the Southeast Division, let alone the NHL.

But since the playoffs began last month, Jokinen, who had only seven goals in the regular season (just one in Carolina), has been channeling his inner John Druce. (Old-time hockey reference. Druce scored 14 playoff goals in 15 games for the 1989-90 Washington Capitals.) Jokinen has been the surprise scoring star of this or almost any playoffs, getting his sixth goal and his third game-winner in the 4-1 victory (BOX | RECAP) over the Bruins, who face elimination in Game 5 Sunday.

To refresh your memories of some of his biggest goals -- or maybe to introduce you to the Hurricanes, the stealth team of these playoffs -- let's rewind:

Jokinen scored with 0.2 left on in Game 4 against New Jersey (that was the game Devils goalie Martin Brodeur threw his stick in a fit of pique); tied the score with 80 seconds left in Game 7 against those Devils (that was the New Jersey meltdown in the final two minutes); and beat Boston in overtime in Game 3 (a game the Bruins had no business in). In Game 4 Friday, he converted on a third-period power play fewer than three minutes into the third period to break a tie and restore Carolina's swagger. Jokinen also assisted on the two subsequent Hurricanes goals, prompting the RBC scoreboard to ask "Did Jussi that? " after his dish freed space for linemate Sergei Samsonov to score his second playoff goal. The puns, like the Bruins slovenly play in the first period, seem never-ending.

"Probably never had this good a stretch," Jokinen said after the game.

This comes after the worst stretch of his career. He was part of the trade to Tampa Bay that sent Brad Richards to the Stars, but Jokinen was a lousy fit with the Lightning, especially after coach Barry Melrose was fired early in the season and Rick Tocchet took over. When you can't play for the Lightning, you probably can't play much. His cost to Carolina was minimal: Wade Brookbank, Josef Melichar and a fourth-round draft choice, the equivalent of a couple of puck bags and a training table.

But the worst was not behind Jokinen, even if his time Tampa Bay in Tampa Bay was. His father died, at age, 51, in March. He still is unable to speak publicly about the death.

"He deserves this, all that he's doing now," said Tuomo Ruutu, his linemate who also has played with Jokinen on the Finnish national team. "He had a tough time this season, but even good players go through tough times. People don't realize he's always been a good player. Look at his stats from his rookie year, all those power-play goals and [55] points. He didn't just show up here without having done anything."

Nor did the Bruins just show up in the second round without having done anything. They were dominant in the regular season, easily the best team in the Eastern Conference. They pummeled Montreal in four straight and whipped Carolina, coming off that whirly-gig against the Devils, in the opener. Now that they have dropped three straight, on merit, there is a theory that the Bruins had not been sufficiently battle-tested during the season. Even coach Claude Julien made a passing reference to it after the morning skate, saying that when the Bruins did stub their toes during the season that, in retrospect, the adversity served as a learning experiences. Down three games to one, the tutorial is offer.

"The team has picked the worst time of the year to play its worst hockey," Julien said after the game. "Not anybody has played up to [his] potential. Obviously we're out of synch ... You can see the frustration of the players now, and it's getting worse."

Indeed the first period was an abomination. With any puck luck the Bruins might have actually emerged with three goals -- they hit two goalposts and P.J. Axelsson was foiled on a short-handed breakaway -- but it was illusory. Boston couldn't gain the zone or keep the puck in with regularity, coughed up pucks to Carolina's quick sticks, finished second in almost every puck battle, gave up a power-play goal after a ridiculous David Krejci roughing penalty and was outshot 12-4. The Bruins were playing a perfect road game, as long as they were intending to travel down the road to oblivion.

After the morning skate defenseman Aaron Ward posited that the Bruins were having trouble making a huge emotional investment in the series because the Hurricanes are a tough team to hate. They are quick but not overly physical and don't stir things up much after whistles. And in the playoffs, Carolina generally has been playing "The Other Series." (Versus picked up its game Friday in progress, in the third period, after the conclusion of Pittsburgh's Game 4 victory over Washington. To the best of our knowledge, there is no Versus 2.) Clearly detachment is no longer an option. With the Hurricanes ability to make quick passes out of their zone and to bear down on the Bruins on the forecheck, they play bigger than their sixth seed or their reputation.

And the Hurricanes also have the player with the smoking stick, Dr. (Double) J.

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