Luke DeCock

Captain then, coach now: Brind’Amour coaxes Hurricanes back to conference finals

Perhaps because he so assiduously downplays the role coaches play during the playoffs, deflecting credit to everyone from the video guys to the trainers, Rod Brind’Amour hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves during these playoffs.

As a motivator, certainly he has. His ability to coax this uncommon resiliency out of this group has never been questioned, nor his able management of incredible fatigue as the injuries mounted and the first round wore on and the second round began without a break.

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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour talks with Justin Williams (14) after Williams scored on New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner (40) during the second period in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup series on Friday, May 3, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. It was Williams’ 100th career goal. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

But as a tactician? Rod the Bod has a brain on him, too, and his first-intermission tinkering Friday broke open a series that had been decided by the finest of margins and led to a comfortable final act of a second-round sweep of the New York Islanders.

The Hurricanes will travel north to face the Boston Bruins or host the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference finals, but there are at least two games left in that series, which will give the Hurricanes some much-needed rest and recuperation after the first four-game sweep in franchise history – a 5-2 win in front of the largest crowd, 19,495, in franchise history.

They’ll need the time, too, after playing their most physically engaged game of the playoffs, a dimension the Hurricanes will have to bring again no matter which team emerges from the other, brutal series. But it’s a luxury they suddenly have as they prepare for a fourth straight trip to the conference finals, now 16-6 in the second round in North Carolina over a span of, uh, 17 years.

It’s time to recognize Brind’Amour’s role in that, and how it goes beyond postgame speechifying.

“You listen to him talk, it’s all about hard work and effort, but there’s much more behind that,” said Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell, a former NHL head coach himself. “Motivating and getting players to play, a lot of guys can do that over the years. It’s the balance of being able to do that and make a decision about switching the lineup or whatever it might be at that point in the game that separates you from being a good coach to a great coach.

“Obviously, a first-year coach, he’s going to learn a lot this year. And I think he has learned a lot this year and he’s only going to get better as time goes on.”

Brind’Amour’s defensive maneuvering late in the first-round series against the Washington Capitals – primarily to get Dougie Hamilton away from Alex Ovechkin – went largely unnoticed, as did the way he manipulated matchups on the road late in Game 7 to maximize Jordan Staal’s impact, two steps ahead of Todd Reirden. Only one of them looked like a rookie NHL coach.

Friday, with the Hurricanes deadlocked with the New York Islanders through one very rough-and-tumble period, Brind’Amour went against his own typical form and shuffled his lines looking for a spark. It’s not his style, which is to hold things together as long as possible. He didn’t make a single goalie change until Petr Mrazek went down in Game 2 of this series, the 91st of the season.

But Brind’Amour ignored his more typical impulses Friday and moved some things around, elevating the surging Andrei Svechnikov and putting the two Finns back together, and was rewarded with two long, puck-dominating shifts to start the period – the first by Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams, the second by Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

At the end of that second shift, Aho stole the puck behind the net and fed Warren Foegele coming right off the bench, who tapped it to a wide-open Teravainen at the far post, left alone by a baffled and beleaguered Islanders defense. That was the first of two goals in 66 seconds and three in less than seven minutes as the Hurricanes broke open this series for the first time, cruising to a surprisingly comfortable win in a series that had been anything but to that point.

“Generally you hope to put the lines together you think will work,” Brind’Amour said. “You don’t necessarily want to (stray) from that right away, because all year it has worked, in my opinion. I knew coming into this series I wasn’t super-excited about some of the matchups. I thought we got to it the other night, thought we had good line combinations and the matchups were good. Right away, I could tell in the first that this was not going to work. So we had our Plan B ready to go, and we went with it, and it worked out.”

It wasn’t the first time in the playoffs that Brind’Amour had a sense of what his team needed when it needed it, and while he’s gotten proper acclaim for the off-the-ice component of that, his command of the Xs and Os has not been adequately recognized, especially in a series where the first three games could have gone either way.

“Obviously you get lost in the shuffle here a little bit in Carolina, but we’re becoming relevant and Roddie is a phenomenal coach and an unbelievable motivator,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said.

As a player or coach, Brind’Amour’s past four playoff appearances with the Hurricanes have all gotten at least this far. There’s a Brind’Amour component to that, whether as a two-way center or captain or coach. The last handshake line on this ice was followed by Brind’Amour lifting the Stanley Cup.

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Carolina’s Brett Pesce (22), right, celebrates with Jordan Staal (11) after the Carolina Hurricanes’ 5-2 victory over the New York Islanders at PNC Arena in Raleigh Friday, May 3, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

He wasn’t a Jack Adams finalist after dragging this team from the depths of the Eastern Conference to the playoffs, and there was certainly a learning curve along the way, but it turns out in the postseason Brind’Amour as a coach is the same way he was as a player: hard to beat.

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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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