- Not many felt sorry for the Hurricanes during the nine-year absence from the playoffs but now that they're back, the hockey world isn't quite sure what to expect.
On April 9, 2011, the Carolina Hurricanes entered the 82nd game of their season with the simplest stakes possible: If they were to beat the Lightning, who were safely in the playoffs, the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot would be theirs. In the two seasons since a heart-stopping run to the 2009 conference finals, the Hurricanes had been far from perfect, but they had proven in their brief history in Raleigh that all they needed to do was get into the postseason to wreak havoc. It was the getting in that had been the hard part.
Thirteen minutes and 17 seconds into the first period, Tampa Bay led 3–0, stunning a crowd that had shown up ready to celebrate. By the time the Hurricanes gained consciousness midway through the second period, they were facing a four-goal deficit they couldn’t dig out of, yielding the eighth seed to the Rangers with a 6–2 loss. In the moment, it was an embarrassing blow to the franchise’s efforts to be known as a consistent contender. With that team’s key players largely under control for the long haul, however, there was little need for any bigger-picture angst.
It is morbidly impressive to go nine consecutive seasons without making a playoff field that includes more than 50% of the league. But it is not impressive enough to earn a league-wide reputation as a star-crossed franchise, nor to earn sympathy for a fan base that got to watch two Stanley Cup Final series and celebrate a championship within 10 years of a team coming to town.
The only people who felt sorry for the Hurricanes as the league's longest active playoff drought stretched on and on were some members of the advanced stats community, which over the years had pointed out how Carolina's increasingly excellent puck possession numbers have been foiled by poor shooting percentages, bad luck, inconsistent goaltending or some combination of the three. Hurricanes fans had come to dread overtime games because of the team's stunning ineptitude in sudden-death play and shootouts.
After a decade in the wilderness marked by countless close calls in the playoff chase—none closer than that meltdown against the Lightning—the franchise is back in the playoffs at last, but the broader hockey world doesn't quite know what to do with it yet. A cathartic celebration swelled inside PNC Arena last Thursday night, when the Hurricanes beat the Devils seconds before the Jumbotron announced the Canadiens' loss in Washington, the two outcomes Carolina needed to lock up a playoff spot before the final weekend of the regular season. The emotional scenes inside the building were all anyone needed to know about the toll the past 10 years have taken on Caniacs, but ahead of Carolina's first-round series against the defending-champion Capitals, it's hard to tell what should be expected of the Hurricanes, or what they expect of themselves. Virtually everything about the hockey world has changed since they last played an elimination game.
Since taking control of the team in early 2018, owner Tom Dundon has been fearless in his overhaul of a franchise without many identifying traits that separated it among NHL teams. Dundon has taken almost exclusively big swings, and although that mentality cost his $250 million investment this spring in the Alliance of American Football dearly, it has paid huge dividends on the ice.
Start with the coach, who was the captain of Carolina's last playoff team. Rod Brind'Amour was brought on staff as an assistant in 2011 after that disastrous loss to the Lightning and worked under Paul Maurice, then Kirk Muller, then Bill Peters before being elevated to the top job after last season's team foundered. Brind'Amour's promotion could have gone down with the many similar moves across the NHL in recent years that have put fan-favorite players in high-visibility management roles with an eye toward P.R. as well as hockey operations. Instead, Brind'Amour has proven his mettle at every turn, keeping things stable from the team's surprisingly strong start (the Hurricanes traditionally struggle out of the gate when the North Carolina State Fair forces them out on a long October road trip) through its midseason doldrums and into a furious second half: The Canes are 31-12-2 since the morning of New Year's Eve.
As the streak grew and their attendance numbers dove toward the bottom of the NHL rankings, the Hurricanes were always outshined by more cynical tankers. They rarely made significant trades until forced to and picked no higher than fifth in the NHL draft until last summer, when some good lottery fortune landed them Russian winger Andrei Svechnikov at No. 2 overall. After years of preaching patience under GM Ron Francis, the Canes took several huge risks this year with Don Waddell working the phones and have seen almost all of them pay off.
Former first-round picks Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner were shipped off, and although Hanifin and Lindholm have helped the Flames become the best team in the West and Skinner has had a career year in Buffalo, the Hurricanes' pieces have fit together seamlessly following the arrival of physical forward Micheal Ferland and dynamic offensive defenseman Dougie Hamilton from Calgary. The biggest victory of all was the midseason trade of forward Victor Rask to the Wild for Nino Niederreiter, who has scored 14 goals in 36 games in a Hurricanes sweater.
After the team finally parted ways with beloved but beleaguered Stanley Cup hero Cam Ward, the situation in net has been better than anyone could have dreamed, as Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have each turned in season-saving performances, with Mrazek establishing himself as the No. 1 option heading into the playoffs. Hurricanes fans have a complicated relationship with goaltending, having sweated through Ward's inconsistent career after the magical Stanley Cup run, but the love affair with their new netminders has been unqualified. Mrazek's triumphant postgame interview after the clinching win said it all.
They are in, and no one knows what they'll do next.