Luke DeCock

In unfamiliar position, Hurricanes have great opportunity

Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Martinook on the home ice advantage: ‘It’s loud in there. Home ice is such a key’

Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Martinook talks with the media in the locker room on Thursday, May 2, 2019
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Carolina Hurricanes' Jordan Martinook talks with the media in the locker room on Thursday, May 2, 2019

Now this is unfamiliar territory for the Carolina Hurricanes. A season spent crawling up the standings, squeaking into the playoffs with all of a game to spare and swatting away elimination – twice – in the first round has arrived at a point where the Hurricanes actually have some margin for error.

For the first time this season. For the first time in recent or distant memory. For the first time in eons.

Even in 2009, the Hurricanes again clinched a playoff spot in the 81st game and faced elimination three times in the first two rounds of those playoffs.

You’d have to go back to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, when the Hurricanes held a 3-1 lead going into Game 5 and had that overtime power play to find a position of similar latitude. Everyone knows what happened then: Cory Stillman turned it over, the Oilers sent the series back to Edmonton and back to Raleigh again and the Hurricanes finally won the Cup five excruciating days and 4,000 agonizing miles after they should have in the first place.

These Hurricanes, 13 years down the road, would be wise to avoid similar lassitude with this similar latitude.

This series has not always gone their way on the ice but it certainly has on the scoreboard, where they have won what were essentially three one-goal games, their six non-empty-net goals to the New York Islanders’ three, and until the middle of Wednesday’s second period had generally been outplayed five-on-five – with no contributions from the power play – before turning up their game and riding the crowd to victory and a 3-0 lead in the series.

The return of a fresh Andrei Svechnikov and a still-hobbled Jordan Martinook gave the Hurricanes a crucial boost of energy, with Svechnikov ringing the post once and nearly scoring on a furious right-wing power drive to the net and Martinook part of a tone-setting fourth-line performance that helped pave the way to Teuvo Teravainen’s opening goal.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour talks with the media in on Thursday, May 2, 2019

Two days off after Game 2 helped, but there are still open questions how much the Hurricanes have left in the tank, how long their defense can hold it together playing essentially five guys – Haydn Fleury played 8:03 Wednesday, spot duty at best but a minute or two more than expected – and how many forwards will get increasingly banged up if this series drags along.

If the Hurricanes are serious about this, there’s an imperative to take this chance to finish off the Islanders at home and get a real break to rest up and heal up before potentially taking on the Columbus Blue Jackets or Boston Bruins in the conference finals. The margins in this series have been too close to allow any kind of a letdown, and a loss means another flight to New York and opens the door not only to a draining back-to-back situation in Games 6 and 7 but the rare 3-0 comeback.

“Whether you’re up three or down three, you have to be desperate to win that game,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Thursday. “Obviously, that’s the approach we want to take. You know the other team is going to be that way. They don’t have a choice. Sometimes having that tomorrow is not a good thing. When your back’s against the wall, you’ll do everything we can. We have to have that mindset as well.”

No coach or player would ever allow himself to get this far ahead of himself, but the reality is the conference finals could be won or lost Friday. If the Hurricanes can sweep the first-round sweepers – something that hasn’t happened since 1993 – they’ll be in prime position for whatever comes next. Having put themselves in this position, every game it drags on weakens their chances not only in this series, obviously, but the next one.

There’s more on the line Friday night than just a sweep. By extending this run, the Hurricanes would put themselves in a better position for an even longer run. By letting the Islanders extend this series, they would put all of that in doubt.

Greg McKegg talks with the media in the Hurricanes' locker room

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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.

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