Luke DeCock

By air or by ice, Hurricanes move to edge of sweep

The Carolina Hurricanes did their best work in the air Wednesday night, as much as on the ice. Whether it was Justin Faulk jumping to full extension to knock down a lob pass from Warren Foegele or Sebastian Aho tipping the puck out of midair to set up the go-ahead goal in the third, they won this one above the rim.

And all that without the injured Trevor van Riemsdyk, the designated dunker in the basketball-themed Storm Surge back in March, which seems an eternity ago now that the Hurricanes are a win away from the conference finals. The last three weeks have been a lifetime.

The next two days won’t pass any more quickly, with the Hurricanes back home — where they are now 4-0 in these playoffs — on Friday with a chance to sweep the New York Islanders and advance to the third round for the fourth straight time, over a span of a mere 17 years, after Wednesday’s 5-2 win.

Faulk’s goal was a thing of beauty, exiting the penalty box to pull down Foegele’s flip at the blue line, then going top-shelf over Robin Lehner with a backhand for his first goal of the playoffs. Aho made it count by knocking down a Lehner clearing attempt behind the net midway through the third, then feeding Justin Williams in the slot. A pair of empty-netters made the margin more gaudy than it actually was.

Coming off three straight one-goal victories – two of them while coming from behind – the Hurricanes should be used to this by now. This is the kind of series it has been and this is the kind of series it is going to be, however long it does or doesn’t last, one of the finest margins and narrowest gaps.

“This win is just another step,” Faulk said. “We need to keep going.”

They got a boost coming home for the first time in nine days, especially with Andrei Svechnikov and Jordan Martinook back in the lineup, and that was good enough to propel them twice into the lead, only to hold those leads for a total of 3:54 – a sequence that did nothing to calm the nerves of a crowd that was more tense than loud, the stakes having intensified greatly because of not only the round but the two road wins that made the Hurricanes a firm favorite to advance.

The Hurricanes didn’t play like it; this was in almost every way the game expected from these teams, choppy and disjointed, with little flow or rhythm, and with no contributions whatsoever from a flailing Hurricanes power play that has now gone 16 days, 23 chances and almost eight hours of elapsed game time without a goal.

Nevertheless, the Hurricanes are 6-1 over that span, suggesting some combination of hustle, heart and voodoo can make up for a man-advantage that’s a net disadvantage, but the Hurricanes really could have used a conversion to feel a little more comfortable in the early going.

As it was, they saved their best for last with a hard-fought third period, perhaps finally benefiting from Monday’s long-awaited day off, maybe just feeding off a crowd that finally seemed to relax after Williams’ goal.

“It was back and forth, we kept responding, we stuck with it,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “And when they got that (third) goal, they just kind of poured it on and we couldn’t get our momentum back. You could tell after their goal how much energy that brought them.”

There could be more rest at hand if the Hurricanes can lock down the sweep. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins appear locked in a struggle to the death, metaphorically speaking. Getting out of this series in a hurry would be a huge advantage for the Hurricanes.

But that’s putting the wagon ahead of the pig – Stormy, the official costumed pig mascot, posed with Hamilton, the unofficial live pig mascot, on Wednesday, in matching coaster wagons – and there’s still another win needed, potentially four more games.

They’re on the verge of something here, something unexpected and unlikely. But in this market, historically speaking, pretty far from unprecedented.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, 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.
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