Luke DeCock

Action, anger and agita: Playoff hockey is back, and it has been far too long

Long before overtime, even, by the end of a second period full of action, anger and agita, there was only one question to ask, with no apparent answer: How did we ever live without playoff hockey for 10 years?

It was all there in Saturday’s middle frame, from a slumping star finally breaking through, to a controversial hit with an excessive accompanying penalty that could come to define a series, to a coach ripping the officiating on national television. And all of that after the Carolina Hurricanes somehow dug themselves out of a two-goal hole.

Are you not entertained?

The Hurricanes will still return home down 2-0 in the series thanks to Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals, a not-entirely-unexpected state of affairs, but the series itself is anything but decided and decidedly a battle of antagonists, bad blood everywhere if not actual blood, yet.

It took the Caps only 108 seconds in OT for Brooks Orpik to get the winner past Petr Mrazek, who was generally spectacular. Teuvo Teravainen, at the end of a long shift and without his stick, dove to block it at the left circle but couldn’t get there in time.

“I got a piece of it, too,” Mrazek said. “I thought it was enough. It wasn’t. I could have had that goal.”

The flashpoint was Micheal Ferland’s match penalty for a hit to the head of Washington’s Nic Dowd on the rush, with the Hurricanes down 2-1 at that point. It was a penalty, but with Dowd leaning over and making contact with Ferland’s back, certainly not a five-minute penalty by any definition.

While the Hurricanes managed to kill off the major, a furious Rod Brind’Amour somehow managed to keep it PG during a bench interview with Pierre McGuire — making reference to a far worse Alex Ovechkin hit to Brock McGinn’s nose in the first that was only a two-minute minor.

Dougie Hamilton, meanwhile, got two minutes for an elbow to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s head later in the second, and the Orwellian-monickered Department of Player Safety will have some video to review before Game 3 in Raleigh on Monday. Ferland should be sentenced to time already served and Ovechkin and Hamilton should be treated equally, whatever that is — but you never know in the NHL.

There was a lot of message-sending Saturday, not all with elbows. The Canes were completely outplayed in the first 10 minutes, but rallied with a Lucas Wallmark tip and a Sebastian Aho goal off Braden Holtby’s ankle from below the goal line, his first in a month.

The penalty-kill, such a disaster Thursday, was more than adequate. Mrazek was spectacular, as he has been since the first goal of the series, even after taking a shot that knocked his mask off. And the Hurricanes responded to Tom Wilson’s go-ahead goal early in the third with a power-play goal of their own, a Jordan Staal tip with five minutes to go to force overtime.

HurricanesCapitalsHockey (9).JPG
Washington Capitals right wing Tom Wilson (43) chases the puck against Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek (34), of the Czech Republic, during the third period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series, Saturday, April 13, 2019, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-3 in overtime. Nick Wass AP

The Hurricanes gave themselves at least a chance to get back into Game 1 and they gave themselves an equal shot at Game 2 despite continuing lackluster performances from some of their top players and failing to score on a two-man advantage.

“The guys played hard, that’s the one thing,” Brind’Amour said. “They gave it all you can. You can’t really fault anything. Can we be better? Yes. For sure.”

Regardless of the results, not to mention the emotional swings, this is a dead-even series, probably more of a fight than the Capitals were expecting, and with everything that’s gone on so far, PNC will be a cauldron of bile and rage on Monday night.

All as it should be. It’s the playoffs. It has been too long, far too long.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.