The drought is over: Canes clinch

A bunch of jerks are going to the playoffs.

Ending the longest postseason drought in the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes secured their place in the Stanley Cup playoffs on Thursday with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena.

To clinch a wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Canes needed a victory on Thursday and the Montreal Canadiens losing in Washington to the Capitals. The Canes won. The Canadiens lost 2-1. It was time for the Canes and their fans, at last, to party like it’s 2009.

The Storm Surge, the post-game celebration after home wins this season that caused hockey commentator Don Cherry to label the Canes a “bunch of jerks,” capped a memorable night. They lined up at center ice, took bows and raised their sticks in a salute. That’s all this night. There’s more hockey to play at PNC Arena.

The last time the Canes were in the playoffs, Rod Brind’Amour was on the bench, a player deep into his career. He now has the Canes back in the playoffs in his first year as an NHL head coach.

“When I played I don’t think I took the time to enjoy all the moments that are special,” Brind’Amour said after the game.. “You work so hard, day-in and day-out. We put the hammer down after game 25. The effort was amazing. I give all the credit to the guys in that (locker) room.”

Rookie forward Warren Foegele scored on a breakaway in the first period and defenseman Justin Faulk on a power play early in the second for the Canes -- by game’s end, the goal that put the Canes back in the playoffs. With goalie Petr Mrazek so steady in net, turning back every threat, making 36 saves, the minutes began to run off and the noise level rose.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Warren Foegele (13) scores on New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider (35) during the first period to tie the Devils 1-1 on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

When Nino Niederreiter scored with 3:25 left in regulation, it was mayhem at PNC Arena. The Canes led 3-1.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Nino Niederrelter (21) scores on New Jersey’s Cory Schneider (35) in the third period to give the Hurricanes’ as 3-1 victory and secure a playoff birth on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

“Crazy loud. I had chills going down my back,” Foegele said.

The playoff schedule will be announced Sunday at 10 a.m. But there’s still some business left: the Canes (45-29-7) play a final regular-season win Saturday at Philadelphia.

With 97 points, the Canes hold the first wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference and were two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were in third place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Columbus Blue Jackets, who did not play Thursday, are in the second wild-card spot with 94 points and have two games left. The Canadiens, with 94 points, are just below the playoff cut line and host Toronto in their final regular-season game.

There was early tension Thursday when Devils captain Andy Greene scored on a shot from the point for a 1-0 lead.

But the arena rumbled later in the period. Taking a stretch pass from defenseman Dougie Hamilton at the New Jersey blue line, Foegele beat goalie Cory Schneider with a five-hole shot on the breakaway.

The cheers were even louder early in the second when Faulk scored. Greene was called for tripping as the first period ended and Faulk scored his 10th of the season with a power-play blast from the point.

Faulk, drafted by the Canes in 2010, has played 588 games for Carolina and now is headed to his first Stanley Cup playoff appearance.

“It’s exciting. Obviously everyone can see all the emotion of the group,” Faulk said, looking around the locker room.. “It’s great. We’re not happy yet, right? We’re not done. That’s not enough, just to get in the playoffs.

“That’s been our mindset all year. It’s not to just get in. We’ve got other business to take care of.”

Mrazek, who has won 11 of his last 13 starts, was tested, making a super stop on a shot by Nico Hischier in the second to keep the lead. The Canes’ penalty killers were tested, killing off two penalties in the second and another early in the third to keep the lead.

The Canes were last in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2009, when they won exciting 7-game series against New Jersey and Boston before being swept in the Eastern Conference finals by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Canes clinched a playoff spot that season, three years after winning the Stanley Cup, in an overtime game against the Penguins. The overtime goal came from defenseman Anton Babchuk, who was to became the answer to a trivia question -- who scored the last goal to clinch a playoff spot for Carolina? -- as the years passed.

The date: April 4, 2009. Ten years later, to the day, the Canes clinched again.

“The feeling,” Mrazek said, “is amazing.”

It’s what the Canes have worked for since September, since the beginning of training camp. Naming Justin Williams the captain was Brind’Amour’s first coaching decision. Williams, at 37, has been the quintessential captain, saying the right things off the ice but also playing well on it.

“It’s been fulfilling,” Williams said of the season. “It’s always fulfilling when you put everything you have into something.”

And it’s not over yet.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.