Luke DeCock

For longest-suffering Hurricanes, this playoff run as much their reward as anyone’s

Jordan Staal, Jaccob Slavin and Nino Niederreiter talk about matchup with Boston

Carolina Hurricanes players Staal, Slavin, and Niederreiter talk with the media following their morning skate in Boston
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Carolina Hurricanes players Staal, Slavin, and Niederreiter talk with the media following their morning skate in Boston

When Jordan Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2012 and signed a 10-year contract to play with his older brother Eric, he was supposed to be the missing piece down the middle to put the Hurricanes over the top and back in the playoffs. The postseason drought, at that point, was only three years, hardly unprecedented.

Justin Faulk was in his second season with the Hurricanes that year, a top young prospect for a franchise that had gone to the conference finals three times in the previous 11 years, with every expectation it would happen again soon.

Staal, who played in 73 playoff games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, played in 462 regular-season games until his 74th in the postseason, the opener in Washington a long month ago. By the time he did, Eric was long gone, with his second team since leaving the Hurricanes. Faulk played his entire NHL career, 599 regular-season games over eight seasons, before that moment.

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In the decade-long drought, no one waited longer or endured more than those two, their reward finally at hand. Not only did the Hurricanes make the playoffs this season, they’re halfway to the Stanley Cup, one of four teams remaining as they open the Eastern Conference finals at the Boston Bruins on Thursday night.

These are the moments Staal and Faulk hoped would someday come, even as they increasingly had every reason to doubt it ever would. As the Hurricanes advance, they’re almost unable to put all those years of waiting in perspective, at least at this point.

“I don’t really want to, to be honest,” Staal said. “All I’m thinking about now is Boston.”

“It’s enjoyable to be here and it’s been a lot of fun to be in the playoffs and have the grind, and I’m happy it wasn’t one round and done,” Faulk said. “We’ve got a chance to make something happen.”

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But there is certainly something to be said for their perseverance, especially since these seasons lacked even the kind of close call the Hurricanes had in 2011, when they missed the playoffs on the final day of the season. In only one of seven seasons were they even within single-digit points of the playoffs.

Then Rod Brind’Amour walked in, a new owner and general manager made a summer’s worth of trades and found a goalie or two and the rest is history. More history with each passing week. Whether they can really appreciate how much history at this moment is almost immaterial.

“As they know,” Brind’Amour said, “it’s hard to even get to this point.”

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour talks with the media prior to Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals

Staal and Faulk weren’t the only ones to wait, just the longest. Jaccob Slavin (309 games), Brett Pesce (289) and Brock McGinn (240) all arrived in 2015, when this group began to come together at the NHL level. (The one other player on the current roster who predates them: Patrick Brown, who made his NHL debut in 2014-15 and whose 28 NHL games are spread out over five years.) Jeff Skinner, who was around for all but one season of the drought, is at 661 and counting in Buffalo.

But Staal and Faulk, more than anyone, came to epitomize the drought: Staal the big-money acquisition, Faulk the home-grown prospect, both withering on the vine in a market that became increasingly irrelevant, and as is its wont, has once again turned a playoff appearance into an unexpectedly prolonged stay.

“You look through a lot of long careers. you just don’t get long runs every year,” Staal said. “That’s not how it works. In general, we had a longer stretch of nothing, so that made it more difficult. When you’re in these moments, you want to do the best you can and relish the moment.”

Staal was a trooper all along, through injury and family tragedy; Faulk’s commitment seemed to waver at times but has never been in doubt this season. They have waited for a moment like this, one step from hockey’s greatest stage. This is their reward as much as anyone’s.

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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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