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Turning point for Canes? ‘We were so bad I almost dressed and got out there’

Canes face defending champions

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour says one of the challenges of facing the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs is the defending Stanley Cup champs are "comfortable being uncomfortable" in close games.
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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour says one of the challenges of facing the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs is the defending Stanley Cup champs are "comfortable being uncomfortable" in close games.

It came after the Carolina Hurricanes had been beaten 4-1 by the Ottawa Senators at PNC Arena, not long after Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour had apologized in the locker room to newcomer Nino Niederreiter.

Brind’Amour strode quickly in for his postgame press conference, saying, “We were so bad I almost dressed and got out there.”

Brind’Amour is 48. That night, on Jan. 18, he might have been an upgrade on a team that was outquicked and outplayed, falling to 22-20-5 for the season and nine points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

“I didn’t know what I was watching,” Brind’Amour said that night, later adding the need to “pick up the pieces” and get back to work.

Looking back now, with the Canes set to appear in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it can be said that was a turning point in the season, perhaps the turning point -- that night, that game, a badly disappointed Brind’Amour saying what he did.

Brind’Amour didn’t mention any names. He even said the effort was there from his team, but countered it by saying, “We didn’t play the way we’re supposed to.”

The Canes had three games left before the All-Star Game and bye-week break, all on the road. After the break would be two home games, then five more on the road -- in all, eight of 10 away in arguably the make-or-break stretch of the season.

The response? The Canes beat Edmonton 7-4 and Vancouver 5-2 on the road, sandwiched around an overtime loss to Calgary. Once back from the break, they beat the Vegas Golden Knights 5-2 at PNC Arena, had another close loss to the Flames, then went 4-1-0 on the road trip. It began with a 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and included a 3-0 shutout of the New York Rangers that ended a 16-game losing streak at Madison Square Garden and a 4-1 win at Ottawa.

The 10-game record: 7-2-1. That’s picking up the pieces and putting everything in place.

After the loss to the Senators, the Canes were 24-9-2 in their final 35 games, in keeping with Brind’Amour’s directive to forget about the “big picture” -- we’re how many points behind? -- for a couple of months, get back to playing their game and claw their way back into the playoff mix.

“I can’t tell you the change,” Brind’Amour said Monday. “I think confidence was a big deal with it. The puck started going in and our guys, you could just see they had a little more swagger. That had a lot to do with it.”

Claw back they did and much went into it. The Niederreiter trade on Jan. 17 was huge, bringing in a scoring winger from the Minnesota Wild who immediately produced. The goalies, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, gave the Canes quality starts and Mrazek was at his fiery best down the stretch, winning 11 of his last 13 games.

“To me they’re 1A and 1B, whatever you want to call it,” Brind’Amour said. “They’ve been huge parts in what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Brind’Amour, asked about the season turnaround, will always say the Canes played their best hockey in the first 25 games, but it wasn’t reflected in their record. That began to change in early January, with a five-game win streak. But after winning seven of eight, seemingly headed in the right direction, the Canes were hammered 6-2 by the Rangers in the Jan. 15 game at the Garden.

Then, the Ottawa debacle at home. Brind’Amour walked into that press conference, “It was so bad ...”

Brind’Amour made his point, delivered the message. Everyone did their part. Big picture: the Canes are in the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes are back in the playoffs after a nine-year absence. If you've been away for a while, here are some of the storylines from the season that led to the Canes breaking the drought.

Five factors that triggered the Canes’ turnaround

Being lucky, being good

Canes general manager Don Waddell was said to have his “lucky” coin in his pocket when the NHL Draft Lottery was held April 28 in Toronto. Lucky or not, the Canes were the big winners, moving from the 11th slot in the first round to No. 2. With the Buffalo Sabres set to pick Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick, the Canes in effect had their top choice: Russian power forward Andrei Svechnikov.

In the lineup at 18, Svechnikov had his ups and downs but scored 20 goals, all at even strength, in his rookie season. Some lottery luck helped set the tone for a special season.

Getting his chance

Rod Brind’Amour was a great player and Stanley Cup winner for the Canes, then served seven years as an assistant coach, but that doesn’t always translate into being a good head coach. But when Bill Peters left for Calgary, Brind’Amour publicly stated he wanted the job, saying, “Now’s the time.”

Owner Tom Dundon made the move, naming Brind’Amour head coach on May 8, saying, “I think Roddy can get more out of people than they may have known they had.” The Canes, 36-35-11 last season, are 46-29-7 heading into the playoffs. Now was the time.

Only one choice for the one “C”

With preseason training camp about to begin, Brind’Amour named Justin Williams the team captain on Sept. 13. “Big surprise, right?” he said of his friend and teammate on the 2006 Cup champions.

Williams has embraced the new role, being a go-to guy in the locker room but also a leader on the ice, scoring some the biggest goals of the season. To wit: his late goal against Pittsburgh on March 19 led to a shootout win and two critical points for the Canes.

Wired for success

Goalie Scott Darling didn’t initially believe his hamstring injury was serious, saying he would quickly be back in the lineup. But with the regular season about to begin and down a goalie, the Canes turned to the waiver wire on Oct. 2 and claimed goalie Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

McElhinney started three of the first five games, all wins. He played a career-high 33 games and won 20, another career best. And the Leafs’ Kyle Dubas wasn’t the only general manager who helped the Canes.

The steal of the season

It’s still hard making sense of the Jan. 17 trade, player for player, that brought Niederreiter to the Canes for center Victor Rask. Minnesota general manager Paul Fenton had his reasons. Waddell wasn’t charged with larceny but could have been, certainly in hockey terms.

The Canes needed more scoring. Nino gave them five goals in his first first five games and has been that guy. A fixture on the top line and power play, Niederreiter has 14 goals and 16 assists in 36 games with Carolina.

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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.
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