If asked to pick a clutch playoff performer for the Carolina Hurricanes since the move to Raleigh, most would answer Eric Staal or Cam Ward. And while both of those are solid, if not obvious choices, there is a third player who stakes some serious claim to that title, a player the Boston Bruins should pay close attention to as Wednesday night’s Game 3 approaches.
It’s a little strange, almost surreal, that the Carolina Hurricanes head into the Eastern Conference semifinals tied 1-1 with Boston, having already dusted off New Jersey in a thrilling seven-game series, without a point from captain Rod Brind’Amour.
Most of us who follow the Canes would have believed that stat four months ago, when Brind’Amour was struggling after coming off a pair of off-season knee surgeries. But the 20-year NHL veteran had points in 14 of his last 17 regular-season games as the Canes rolled into the postseason. And this historically is a good time of the year for Brind’Amour, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 141 career playoff games – by far the most of any player on the Carolina roster.
“When I go back and look at the last series I was getting as many scoring chances as anyone and I was playing pretty well,” Brind’Amour said. “Maybe it’s going to be one of those years where you get the one big one. That’s the way I’m looking at it right now. I am going to cash in somewhere. Hopefully, it will be when we need it.”
In case you need more hard evidence that Brind’Amour is due to break out of his mini playoff slump, let’s retrace Carolina’s last three playoff appearances. He had a game-winning goal in each playoff run in 2001 and ’02, then was one of the heroes of the 2006 Stanley Cup winning season, getting a game-winning goal in each of the four series for a total of six in his 54 career playoff games for the red and white.
In addition to his game-winner in Game 4 of the opening series in 2006 against Montreal, the captain scored in the waning moments of Game 3 to tie the score in a game the Canes eventually won, avoiding a three-game hole and most likely a first-round exit the season Carolina won hockey’s ultimate prize.
“You want to contribute like that,” Brind’Amour said of his past heroics. “It doesn’t matter how many chances I get now, I’ve got to produce.”
Brind’Amour’s play has remained solid despite staring at a blank score sheet nine games into the 2009 playoffs. He’s at a respectable 0 in the plus-minus category, remains Carolina’s top face-off man (53.2 percent) and has been a key cog in the team’s 91.2 percent penalty kill success rate – good for fourth-best in the playoffs. And his 20 shots are sixth most on the team.
Brind’Amour’s teammates have seen their captain remain upbeat – both on abd off the ice -- despite the worst playoff drought of his career, and a recent drop to the fourth line.
“Until you brought it up I didn’t even know or notice,” Ray Whitney said of Brind’Amour’s lack of scoring. “I’ve said a thousand times it really doesn’t matter who scores and who doesn’t at this time of the year, as long as somebody is and you’re winning. He’s not on the score sheet but can you give him an assist for that face-off he won at the end of the game the other night or his penalty killing?"
For now, Brind’Amour is centering wingers Patrick Eaves and Ryan Bayda. Coach Paul Maurice said it’s more of a promotion for Jussi Jokinen -- who has four playoff goals – and not a demotion for the captain. And Boston plays its fourth line more than any team in the league, meaning Brind’Amour still expects to log 17 or 18 minutes a night.
“This is an unusual series in how much the other team runs their fourth line, so I put Roddy there to give us a little bit different look,” Maurice said. “Roddy’s game never changes depending on how tough the opponent is. He can play against three guys who are bangers or fighters and it won’t affect what he does. He goes in there and moves. I’ve got no concern about his play. I know some people look at the stats of certain players who haven’t scored and say, ‘Hey, they’ve got to get it going.’ If you’re still playing (this time of the year) they don’t have to get it going. If you’re not playing any more you can look back and say this guy or that guy didn’t produce and maybe that was your problem.”
“It means we’ve got some depth, some good players in our locker room,” Staal said about Brind’Amour’s move to the fourth line. “Roddy has been a key player for us in the playoffs in other areas. He’s the best in the league in the face-off circle and that makes a huge difference. And I’ve been fortunate enough to go out there with him on the penalty kill and he’s an easy guy to play with. He’s done this many times, so he’s in the fight and he’s going to get his chances. For him, it’s about winning games.”
Brind’Amour is not alone when it comes to offensive struggles so far in the postseason for some of Carolina’s top players. Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov are also without goals, totaling just 26 shots.
“There are lots of things I can do in the ice to create opportunities, and if it’s not just for me it’s for my linemates,” Cole said. “That’s something you can always build off of, and do things right on the defensive side of the puck. When I pay attention to details the opportunities will come the other way. Good defense creates good offense for us.”
“What’s the alternative? It’s pretty easy to sit around and wallow in it, but I’ll save that for when I go home and call my dad,” Brind’Amour said. “Whatever I have to do at the rink, I’ll stay ready. It’s not easy when you’re not getting as much ice time, but I’ll still be out there at some point and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
Brind’Amour, 38, used to be superstitious, but leaves that to the younger players.
“I’ve kind of let them all go,” he said. “I’ve had so many ups and downs in my life I’ve pretty much exhausted every one of them. It’s just about every moment, every shift, hoping that this could be the time it happens.”
If history is any indicator, don’t be surprised if No. 17 shows up in a big way in this series when the chips are down.