Justin Williams said it from the start. The Carolina Hurricanes would not be satisfied with just making the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, as pleasing as that was.
They wanted more, a lot more. And, as Williams might say, why not?
As captain of the Canes, as a three-time Stanley Cup winner, Williams has pointed the way as much as anyone. The Canes now are in the Eastern Conference finals, disposing of the New York Islanders in four straight games in the second round.
A 5-2 victory Friday at PNC Arena finished off the sweep, a result many would say was unexpected with the two teams near mirror-images of each other. Then again, so was the double-overtime Game 7 victory over the Washington Capitals, last year’s Stanley Cup champions.
“The road isn’t over. We’re still creating it ourselves,” Williams said. “It’s been quite a change around here, certainly in the past few months. Everybody is believing in each other. We’ll see what happens.”
The Canes now will have time to rest and wait as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins decide their Eastern Conference finals opponent. The Blue Jackets and Bruins are tied 2-2 in their series, which resumes Saturday in Boston.
If the Blue Jackets win their series, the Canes would host the first two games at PNC Arena. Should the Bruins win, the first two games would be in Boston. Whatever, the Canes will be ready.
“They just come hard and they earn everything that they’re getting,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said of his team. “That’s probably made me the most proud. “
The Canes had reached the Eastern finals each of the last three times they’ve been in the playoffs -- in 2002, 2006 and 2009, reaching the 2002 Stanley Cup finals and capping the 2006 run with the Stanley Cup. The last nine seasons have been frustrating for the Canes, for their fans, always on the outside looking, but that special feeling is back in Brind’Amour’s first year as a head coach.
“They’re going to be a tough out, I’ll l tell you,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “Anybody that plays them. That’s a quick, high-pressure team that forces you to execute. Right now they’re feeling it and have great belief.”
On Friday, it was Curtis McElhinney in net again for the Canes, winning for a third straight time since coming in for an injured Petr Mrazek in Game 2 in New York. Canes fans were chanting “Cur-tis! Cur-tis!” in the third period after McElhinney calmly gloved a shot and gave it a no-big-deal flip to the ref after the whistle.
McElhinney did allow a late goal to Brock Nelson, but no one really cared. The Canes led 5-2. The celebration was on.
After Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera sounded the warning siren before the game, the Canes weren’t at the best in the first period. They got out of the period with a 1-1 tie because of what’s become a rarity: a power-play goal.
Aho got the goal although the Isles’ Adam Pelech knocked the puck past goalie Robin Lehner. For Carolina, make it the first power-play score in eight games.
“I know it was kind of lucky but that was a big goal, to get the momentum back,” Aho said.
The second period was all Canes. As Lehner put it, “They came out flying and that was that.”
Carolina, with Brind’Amour making line adjustments, would score three times as Teuvo Teravainen, Greg McKegg and then Williams found the net, urged on throughout by a rowdy, record PNC Arena crowd of 19,495 that sensed a knockout punch coming.
Teravainen’s score came after a strong forecheck, Aho fighting for the puck behind the net, Warren Foegele finding Teravainen unchecked. McKegg then followed up a Brett Pesce shot to score on the rebound for what would be the game-winner.
Trotz, who coached the Caps to the Stanley Cup last year, used his timeout at that point to both try and stall the Canes’ momentum and get Lehner out of the game for Thomas Greiss. But it soon was 4-1 as Williams scored off a Jordan Staal pass, backhanding the puck past Greiss.
There was the thought Trotz might use Greiss on Friday given his success against the Canes -- Greiss beat them three times this season. But Trotz again went with Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist and one of the league’s best comeback stories this season. Trotz did make line changes and the Isles forced an early penalty on the Canes’ Andrei Svechnikov, then scoring on the power platy -- Barzal with the goal -- for the lead.
The Canes answered. So did Svechnikov. His goal late in the game had the noise level at its highest, the rookie forward leaping into the glass.
After the game, there were the customary team handshakes. The Islanders were going home. The Hurricanes still have hockey to play, with so many opportunities.
“We’re not done yet,” Aho said.