Playoff underdogs, Canes back where they want to be

Carolina Hurricanes’ coach Rod Brind’Amour talks about veteran Jordan Staal, the Washington Capitals and the Stanley Cup playoffs

Brind'Amour talks with the media following the Hurricanes' final practice before departing for Washington on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
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Brind'Amour talks with the media following the Hurricanes' final practice before departing for Washington on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.

Jordan Staal was 20 years old in 2009, yet to be a husband and father but soon to have a Stanley Cup ring.

Then in his third season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he experienced one of the toughest moments he has had in hockey. The Pens having swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals, Staal exchanged handshakes at center ice with a very disappointed older brother, Eric, then the Canes captain.

“I was on the good side of it then,” Jordan Staal said.

Those would be the last playoff handshakes for the Hurricanes. Nine seasons passed after that May day with no playoff games. Jordan Staal, after winning the Cup in 2009, was traded to the Canes in 2012 and Eric Staal was later traded away, leaving Jordan behind to soldier on.

Now, there is playoff hockey again for the Hurricanes. The opponent is the Washington Capitals, who were on the right side of every handshake line last year, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time. Game 1 is Thursday at Capital One Arena in Washington.

“This is where you want to be,” Jordan Staal said. “You want to be a part of it, you want to be pushing for the ultimate goal.”

Rod Brind’Amour has taken the Canes to the playoffs in his first year as a head coach, believing in them, pushing them, getting the best out of them. It is a team that landed in the playoffs after playing must-win game after must-win game down the stretch of the season, earning the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and a matchup against the Caps, the Metropolitan Division winner.

“This is not a team with anybody’s expectations being very high this year,” NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury said in a media call. “This is not supposed to happen and you have (Brind’Amour) doing this for the first time. There were all sorts of question marks but it’s pretty obvious that what he has done is taken his experience as a player and how to make for a good (playing) atmosphere and transferred it to his team.

“There isn’t another team in the league that had as much fun as Carolina did, is there? They really bonded together, hung together, won some tough games down the stretch. ... It’s a team I think that will be a tough out.”

Carolina Hurricanes forward Brock McGinn discusses the Stanley Cup playoff series against the Washington Capitals, what the Canes need to do to be successful. And what to do about his playoff beard.

The Canes are underdogs but the playoffs can be funky, unpredictable, with momentum swings, mood swings. The Canes experienced all of that in 2006 in winning the Cup, with Brind’Amour as their captain. It was that way in 2009.

A year ago, the Caps lost their first two playoff games, both in overtime and both at home, to the Columbus Blue Jackets. That’s a pretty deep, dark hole.

But the Caps reached that ultimate goal. They won the third playoff game in double overtime, digging deep, then three more against Columbus. They won a cathartic series against the Penguins, topped the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games and finally finished off the Vegas Golden Knights in five in the Stanley Cup final.

Time to lift the Cup, fellows. The Caps’ Alex Ovechkin acted like he never wanted to let it go. The Stanley Cup hangover persisted, but the Caps eventually found their game this season, started stringing together wins, won the Metro, began to look like would-be champs again. Here they are.

“As a team they’re more dangerous because they’ve figured it out,” Brind’Amour said. “They always had the team to win. I don’t think their team has changed all that much but they didn’t quite have it figured out. Then the light bulb went on, I think, with some of their elite players and now they’re the best. We know what we’re in for.”

Jordan Staal, right, celebrates with Nino Niederreiter, center, and Trevor van Reimsdyk after scoring one of the Carolina Hurricanes’ goals in a 4-1 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. “It’s been fun being involved with these kinds of games,” Staal said. Associated Press

But what about the Canes? Brind’Amour has a quick, attacking team that added some bite this year with physical forwards Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook, all the better for competing against the Caps in a best-of-seven series. They traded for forward Nino Niederreiter, adding firepower to the offense.

The Canes have a hot goalie, Petr Mrazek, who has won 11 of his last 13 games and should start the opener Thursday. The defense is active and now more seasoned, although the Canes hope Calvin de Haan, who has been sidelined with an upper-body injury, can soon return. If not, Haydn Fleury, a former first-round draft pick, has proven to be a capable replacement.

“We made so many changes in the offseason, had so many new guys on the roster including the goalies,” general manager Don Waddell said. “It takes time for guys to jell and believe in the system. Once they got going, the story has been going on since the end of December. We’ll see how far it goes.”

The Canes’ Storm Surge postgame celebrations at PNC Arena has been part of the story and generated a lot of buzz within the league, and “Bunch of Jerks” became the fans’ rallying cry after Don Cherry’s outburst on Hockey Night in Canada. But Milbury, who can be considered “old-school,” said the Surge was needed, even calling it fun.

“Let’s face it, Carolina hasn’t always been the greatest place to play,” Milbury said. “Some of those guys have been there for a while and it’s been a little bit boring and been more of a job than a passion. I thought it was great for them, thought it bonded them.”

Jordan Staal spent his first six seasons with the Canes playing meaningless games late in March, saying he hated it. That’s changed. On to the playoffs, to the games that mean the most.

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