Luke DeCock

Among their final-four predecessors, these Hurricanes share 2006’s belief

Hurricanes sweep the Islanders in 4 games

Check out photos from game 4 of the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup playoff series against the NY Islanders Friday night, May 3, 2019.
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Check out photos from game 4 of the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup playoff series against the NY Islanders Friday night, May 3, 2019.

This is the fourth straight postseason the Carolina Hurricanes have made it to the conference finals, and even if the only connections to the first run are a pair of players who became coaches over the intervening 17 years – current head coach Rod Brind’Amour and assistant coach Jeff Daniels – the primary attribute this team shares with its most successful predecessor is the complete and utter lack of surprise to be in this position.

Friday’s win to complete the sweep over the New York Islanders and set up an Eastern Conference finals meeting with either the Boston Bruins or Columbus Blue Jackets was greeted with so little self-congratulation that it almost felt like a Tuesday night in January. Some of that may just have been raw fatigue after playing 11 brutal games in 23 days, but not all of it.

“I said at the start of the season, we’re not making a ceiling for ourselves,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “We’re not tapping out at making the playoffs or winning a round or winning two rounds. We’re going to see how good we can be. I said that at the start of the year. I don’t know how good we can be. But we’re working ourselves into the conversation here and we’ll see what happens.”

While this is entirely new territory for this group, it recalls the sense of destiny the 2006 team had in a way that neither of the other two conference finalists would even presume.

Williams and the 2006 champions never wavered in their belief that they were the best team, even after losing the first two games at home to the Montreal Canadiens, especially in the Game 7s against the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers. That team expected to be there at the end, a presumption that filtered down from coach Peter Laviolette and captain Brind’Amour and a host of surly veterans. If anything, it was grumpy about needing seven games twice to do it.

That was different than 2002, each wins as unlikely and unexpected as a box of chocolates, from the Miracle at Molson to all the other twists and turns. No one gave the Hurricanes the slightest chance to even compete in any of the four series. That team was on a joyride, as giddy as anyone else to find itself moving along, even up 1-0 in the Stanley Cup finals after Ron Francis’ overtime goal in Detroit.

And that was different than 2009, a team that still had the residue of confidence from the core of the 2006 team that remained, but advanced through the playoffs with an improbable combination of drama and luck, from the two goals in the final 80 seconds on Martin Brodeur to go from elimination to advancement to Scott Walker’s emotional overtime goal in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins. By the time that team got to the conference finals, it was emotionally spent, with nothing left to give against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ juggernaut.

Ten years later, things are different. Ending the drought was important – essential – but from the beginning this team looked at that as the means to an end, not the end itself, an attitude that, as in 2006, started with Brind’Amour and Williams and filtered down through the dressing room.

“Part of the change in my opinion was changing the way we looked at ourselves and where we wanted to be,” Brind’Amour said. “Part of it was, we’ve got to raise the bar. It’s not good enough to make the playoffs. Who cares? That’s not the goal.”

This team didn’t have the regular-season success that the Hurricanes had in 2006, but it somehow developed all the confidence that team had, in part because of the resolute belief of its coach and captain, in part because the Hurricanes knew they were playing the right way to start the season but didn’t get the results to show for it. Ironically, that was largely because of a historically bad shooting percentage and erratic goaltending, both of which have been the opposite in the postseason.

Which is why, instead of taking a victory lap Friday night, or even a sigh of relief, there was merely a collective shrug. That’s how the 2006 team felt about things too, at least until the end of the Buffalo series when there was genuine satisfaction in surviving that seven-game war.

Friday’s victory engendered the same sense of levity.

“I don’t think too many people expected us to be here, but we did,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s easy to say now because we’re here. But that is the truth. I think those guys, you ask them the same thing, this is great, we’re super-excited, but there’s more. We have to do more.”

The 2002 team was happy to get this far, the 2006 team never had any doubt and the 2009 gave everything it had. This team may be closest to 2006 in terms of its emotions, but it continues to confound external expectations while living up to its own.

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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.