Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock, who has seen a few NHL teams in his time, recently was discussing the difficulty and stress of playing the Carolina Hurricanes.
He talked about the Canes’ size and mobility. He talked about their ability to hem and hammer — that is, hem a team into its zone and hammer it on the forecheck.
”Mentally and emotionally it can be discouraging playing against them because you just don’t have any space any time,” Hitchcock said. “If they get into the playoffs they would be a very hard team to play against because they’re going to overwhelm you.”
Ah, the rub — “if.”
With 18 games left in the regular season, it’s all sitting there for the Hurricanes (35-23-6). They’re coming off a 10-3-0 February, playing their best hockey, beating the St. Louis Blues 5-2 on Friday. They’re in playoff position in the Eastern Conference. They can see the finish line but can they get there?
“We’re doing what we need to do right now, banking wins and then see what happens,” Canes captain Justin Williams said.
Williams was a big part of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup championship. He won two more Stanley Cup rings with the Los Angeles Kings and has been a part of 10 playoff teams and 140 career playoff games.
How does a team get there? After all, the Canes have had no postseason games since 2009, when center Sebastian Aho was 11 years old.
”There are 82 games and you’re going to win some that you feel you shouldn’t and you’re going to lose some you feel you really needed,” Williams said. “The most important thing is playoff teams get it and win the majority of both of those.
”We’re doing what’s necessary. We know where we are. All we need to do is keep winning and not worry about what’s going on.”
The Canes blitzed the Kings on Tuesday, leading 6-0 after two periods in a 6-1 win at PNC Arena. With center Jordan Staal back in the lineup for a second game, the team was at full strength.
Before the game ended, Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour had defenseman Justin Faulk and forward Micheal Ferland leave with injuries. Then defenseman Calvin de Haan was injured in the team’s postgame workout.
Brind’Amour was somber in his postgame press conference, given the injuries, and said he would have to “assess the damage.” But Ferland was at practice Thursday. Faulk also was in the lineup against the Blues.
De Haan wasn’t available but defenseman Haydn Fleury filled in well as emergency callup from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. And de Haan’s injury could be a short-term thing and the overall “damage” minimal.
Last season, former coach Bill Peters wrote “29 Games Left, Who Are We?” on a white board for the players to see after a practice. It was a team still in search of an identity that late in the 2017-18 season, one that would learn it was not a playoff team.
But Brind’Amour wanted an aggressive, in-your-face approach in his first season as a head coach and the players responded.
”We’ve forged (an identity) as a hard-working, forechecking team. That’s what we are,” Williams said. “We’ve gotten more confident with it and more comfortable with calling ourselves that as the season has gone on. You can’t just do it every now and then. An identity is something you sustain throughout the year.”
Adding winger Nino Niederreiter in the Jan. 17 trade with Minnesota gave the Canes a scoring winger to provide more thump, more heavy play in the offensive zone. Playing on a line with Aho and Williams, he has constantly buzzed around the net and did again against the Blues, picking up a pair of assists to give him 17 points in 18 games with the Canes.
“It’s a young group of guys on this team and everybody cares only about winning a hockey game,” Niederreiter said Thursday. “Everybody works hard and some nights we find a win to win 5-0 and sometimes find a way to win 2-1. I think that’s what a good team is all about.”
Like many NHL teams, the Canes are successful when scoring first (26-6-2) and rarely lose when leading after two periods (26-1-2). But falling behind and chasing games has been tough -- Carolina is 9-17-4 when the other team gets the game’s first goal.
Until the game at Ottawa on Feb. 12, the Canes were 0-17-3 this season when trailing after two periods. But they beat the Senators that night and then came from behind in the third for a 4-3 win at Florida on Feb. 21. That’s another good trend.
”We’re hard workers who try to make it hard work for the other team every game,” Aho said. “We try to be a team that plays the same way no matter what the score is.”
Or the arena. The Canes are 18-10-4 at PNC Arena. They’re now 17-13-2 in road games after going 8-1-1 in their last 10.
“It’s about confidence, about learning from mistakes in past years,” said winger Teuvo Teravainen, who has a career-hgih 43 assists afetr two against the Blues. “I feel this group is more ready and more fun in the locker room. There’s a good feeling around here.”
Canes fans are excited. The buzz is louder. Can this, at last, finally be a playoff team, a playoff year?
”Obviously it’s been a while,” Aho said. “It’s everyone’s goal to get there and play the real games.”
Real games? That’s what Aho said.
”It’s a big deal for us,” he said. “We all want to do it.”