Playoffs plus beautiful day equals the perfect storm

Rachel Gamble grew up in the dead of hockey country - central New York - so she knows passionate playoff hockey when she sees it.

She is as qualified as anyone to vouch for a great playoff atmosphere. So when she arrived at PNC Arena around 4 p.m., three hours before the puck dropped, she was blown away at the fact that so many people had already made their way to the parking lot in preparation for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup playoffs between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals.

A near perfect 70 degree day, combined with spring break for many local schools meant the lots around PNC were busy earlier than usual. Typically lots open at 4 for a 7 p.m. game. On Tuesday they opened at 2 p.m.

Street hockey games broke out in lot 1000, as well as flag football and cornhole. The grills were going early and the typical North Carolina pollen was thankfully washed away due to a shower the night before. Mother Nature, obviously, must be a Hurricanes fan.

This was the perfect storm for playoff hockey in North Carolina and the 10-year postseason drought only added to the excitement.

The place to be, however, was the Party Plaza. Located directly in front of PNC, the Party Plaza was part carnival, part social event. There was a DJ set up toward Carter-Finley Stadium. Radio stations did their show live from the bricks, all the food you can eat, and games and face paint for the kids. And the closer it got the the puck drop, the more people flooded the area.

The line to purchase a hot-off-the-press shirt with ‘Surge Together’ on the front grew longer by the minute. The Stormy bouncy house was popular with the kids and fans had to wait in a line two-deep at a chance to play corn hole. The Party Plaza isn’t new - the Hurricanes have done it, or attempted to do it, 12 times this season. Various weather conditions that didn’t cooperate shut it down, but Monday was perfect.

Gamble hopped in her car and drove the 740 miles to PNC to see the Hurricanes. She comes down for two or three games a year, but the mood outside the arena for the playoffs were a different animal.

“They are here early, and they are having fun and they are excited,” Gamble said. “They are really excited for hockey in North Carolina which is really fun to see. And the Hurricanes have stepped up as an organization to make it fun. People are here an hour early before doors are open … for hockey.”

Actually fans were there as early as three hours for this one. Gamble took off a week from her job to be here for Games 3 and 4, also Game 6 if the series goes that far. Many parents made the trip to PNC a family affair on Monday. Several of the kids who participated in the pregame festivities looked like they weren’t even born the last time Carolina made the playoffs. Any history lesson they needed was in the Hurricanes mobile unit, which was an interactive truck parked in front of PNC, one of the many options for the fans, young and old.

Tad Wood, a Raleigh resident, said he picked the perfect time to purchase season tickets. This year was the first time he got some, and as he overlooked the Party Plaza, he raved about the mood surrounding the first home playoff game in a long, long, time.

“The number of people who are tailgating, partying, getting here early,” Wood said. “It’s just, not just here but in the whole community. The excitement around is neat.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.