Sports

Bruins end Canes season with sweep in Eastern Conference finals

Rod Brind’Amour following loss to Boston: ‘Super proud of this group, we overachieved’

Rod Brind'Amour addresses the media after the Boston Bruins clinched the Eastern Conference championship
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Rod Brind'Amour addresses the media after the Boston Bruins clinched the Eastern Conference championship

In the final minutes, Carolina Hurricanes fans rose as one at PNC Arena, twirling their towels, loud, chanting “Let’s go Canes!”

It was not the ending they wanted. The Boston Bruins, tough and talented, were finishing off a 4-0 victory Thursday and a sweep over the Canes in the Eastern Conference finals.

But for the Hurricanes, the standing ovation was both an appreciation for the season that was and a surprisingly strong playoff run that had unfolded, and an affirmation of the special niche the team, the franchise, still holds in the community and in its sports landscape.

It’s hard to overstate all that accomplished this season by this team. It was the first playoff appearance since 2009. It came in Rod Brind’Amour’s first season as a head coach, in Justin Williams’ first year as a team captain, the two former teammates from the 2006 Stanley Cup champions leading the team to heights few expected in September or thought possible after a poor December.

The Canes were one of the NHL’s best teams after New Year’s. Once in the playoffs, they ousted the Washington Capitals in seven games and swept the New York Islanders to reach the league’s final four in the conference finals.

“I’m proud obviously of what we’ve done,” Williams said. “I’m proud that we’ve gotten ourselves relevant again. I’m proud we raised the bar in this organization. I’m proud of every one of my teammates.

“It’s just tough to reflect right now when things are so sudden. I didn’t think it would be done quite like this but you tip your cap sometimes and Boston played great.”

The Canes' Justin Williams reflects on the season after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

The Bruins won the fourth game much like they won the first three, with a spotless performance from goalie Tuukka Rask and a decided edge in special teams. Patrice Bergeron scored twice and had an assist, and David Pastrnak had a goal and two assists for the Bruins, who will face the San Jose Sharks or St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup final.

While the Canes continued to sputter on the power play and penalty kill, the Bruins scored twice in the second period as Pastrnak and Bergeron supplied the power-play goals. With a 2-0 lead after two, and Rask stopping everything, the game was more or less decided, and Bergeron added an even-strength score and Brad Marchand an empty-netter in the third.

“It stings right now and it’s going to sting for a while,” Brind’Amour said. “You do need at some point reflect on what happened this year and I’m super proud of this group, super proud of this organization. We overachieved. There’s no other way you can look at it. You can look at these last four games and say ‘That wasn’t very pretty’ but if you take the whole picture of what went on here it’s pretty impressive, in my opinion.

“We had four or five rookies up front most nights and no one really talked about that much. They were just figuring it out as we went. I’m really proud of the group right now. It was a fun group to be around.”

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Carolina’s Warren Foegele (13) and Boston’s Matt Grzelcyk (48) fight for the puck during the first period of the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against the Boston Bruins in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The first Bruins score came after the Canes were called for too many men on the ice. The second came after the Canes’ Greg McKegg made a strong power move to the net, only to have the puck tipped away and then smack into Rask for a goaltender interference penalty.

While the Canes finished the conference finals 1-for-14 on the power play and 5-for-52 in the playoffs, the Bruins were 7-of-15 in the series. Crunch those numbers and it added up to a Bruins sweep.

The Canes' Jordan Staal reflects on the postseason and the future after the Carolina Hurricanes were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019.

“They were the better team obviously and did a lot of good things,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “In the end I think our special teams kind of killed us. I’m on both of them so I had to be better and a lot of guys needed to be better in that regard. I think 5-on-5 was pretty even ... but in the end they were better.”

The Bruins played Thursday without injured defenseman Zdeno Chara and fourth-line forward Chris Wagner, but didn’t need them this night. Canes forward Jordan Martinook also missed another game with a lower-body injury.

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Boston’s Brad Marchand (63) celebrates with David Pastrnak (88) as Carolina’s Calvin de Haan (44) skates away after Pastrnak scored during the second period of the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against the Boston Bruins in game four of the Eastern Conference finals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Thursday, May 16, 2019. Boston’s Jake DeBrusk (74) skates in. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

For the Canes, it was a season to remember:

There were new faces in different places -- defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, Martinook and forward Micheal Ferland among them. And two new goalies, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, the waiver-wire pickup who became a big pick-me-up for the Canes.

Sebastian Aho, despite some reluctance by Brind’Amour, was used at center all season became an NHL All-Star, scoring 30 goals.

Getting lucky in the NHL Draft lottery, the Canes won the No. 2 overall pick for the 2018 draft and picked Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov, who was in the lineup at 18 could be a future All-Star in the making.

The Storm Surge. The Canes players took a flying leap into the glass after their first home win and the postgame fun began -- a Thor strike, baseball homer, basketball dunk, you name it -- and was something discussed around the NHL. Don Cherry talked about it. The Hockey Night in Canada mouthpiece disparaged the Surge, labeling the Canes a “bunch of jerks.”

There’s work to be done in looking to next year. The power play was awful much of the season. The penalty kill can be better. Decisions need to be made on players due to become unrestricted free agents in July: McElhinney, Mrazek, Ferland, McKegg.

And Williams. Does the captain sign a new contract and return? Don’t rule it out.

“I’m extremely proud of all we’ve done,” Williams said.

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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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