Call it irony, fate, or just dumb luck that the Carolina Hurricanes are matched against the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs. But in reality, it’s so much more.
You can’t mention Joe Frazier without summoning images of Muhammad Ali; or Magic Johnson and not rival Larry Bird. In the NHL playoffs, the Canes seemingly can’t achieve greatness without getting a piece of the Devils first.
The Canes, a speedy group with a hot hand, needed the Devils in the first round of the playoffs like a hole in their head. New Jersey, for what seems like more than 100 years, has played a style akin to a boxer establishing his jab for 10 rounds, looking for that little opening to attack. It can be frustrating, demoralizing and knock you off your game if you sway slightly during 60 minutes and beyond.
But for the fourth time Carolina has entered the playoffs in Raleigh, the Devils stand in the way of a march to the Cup. There is a fiery history here folks, and lots of it. From Scott Stevens taking out Shane Willis and Ron Francis with vicious open-ice hits in 2001, to the Canes knocking off the defending champs a year later, to a series romp in ’06 on the way to the franchise’s first Cup triumph.
These two teams have played three times over the last three weeks of the regular season without incident. The odds of it remaining that serene over the next week and a half are zilch.
“They don’t seem to ever miss the playoffs, they’re not flashy, you never hear about them but they’re always there, always there,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour, who will be logging his team-leading 142nd career playoff game Wednesday night. “It’s kind of like old hat. It wouldn’t be a playoff if we didn’t play them. And over the years they haven’t changed much, they’re still a defensive-oriented team and they like to capitalize on your mistakes.
“You never know what to expect, but you do know they’re not going to give you much. The trick there is trying to create something without giving up too much.”
There-in lies the rub, the game-within-the-game, and a playoff matchup the Triangle fans couldn’t have dreamed of more. The Devils are a team most would describe as methodical at best and boring at worst, but for whatever reason transform into an intriguing bunch when they take on the Canes.
While New Jersey finished as the third seed in the East, Carolina finished off the final month of the season as the hottest team in the league, serving notice that there is no clear “favorite” in this opening series.
“It’s a different feeling than getting in on the last day,” said coach Paul Maurice, who has been behind the bench for three of the four playoff series with the Devils. “Confidence is such a hard thing to get a hold of in this league, so there is some confidence there. We’re playing a very good team, so that should keep our confidence at an appropriate level. But at the same time we’re not sneaking in the back door here. We’re good enough to compete now.”
If New Jersey is the model franchise in the Eastern Conference, the Canes are a close second, not Montreal, Toronto or Boston. Carolina won the Cup in 2006 and managed to make the finals in 2002 – more than any franchise can brag about this decade except for maybe the Devils.
“If you look to your left or right there is a guy who has won the Cup,” said playoff rookie Tim Gleason. “It’s a comforting feeling that you’re not alone in this. If you have any questions the guys are there to answer them. I want to go to battle with all these guys.
“It was a nervous feeling (when I got traded to Carolina) because it was like, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got to get going as soon as I get here because these guys are coming off winning the Cup.’ The last two years have been such a disappointment, but we’re here now. This is why we play – for the excitement, for the fans and to win.”
Erik Cole remembers flashes of prior series against New Jersey, like in 2002, as a rookie having to match up against Stevens and scoring the winning goal in the series opener, or pacing in a hallway before Eric Staal’s improbable goal with three seconds left in Game 2 to send the game into overtime, which the Canes eventually won en route to a five-game series victory in the second round in 2006.
“I couldn’t watch. I saw the replay,” Cole said of Staal’s series-changing goal. “It was a great example of playoff desperation. We certainly had it that year and hopefully we’ll have it this year.”
“It certainly wasn’t a spot in a game where you would expect to tie it up and get a win out of it,” Staal recalled. “It ranks right up there for me.”
That pivotal game on May 8, 2006, was just one of 10 wins in 17 playoff tries against Martin Brodeur. It’s an improbable mark against one of the game’s all-time greats in net. Despite posting a sparking 1.92 goals against average in those postseason games, the Canes have been able to crack the future Hall of Famer at key times in the postseason.
It’s a trend the Canes can’t take for granted in what is sure to be a close series from the start.
“For us that’s a good stat, but it’s a new series, new playoffs, new players and we’ve got to stick to our game plan,” said Niclas Wallin. “We can’t look at any records here and there.”
“I just think he’s got great hockey sense,” Staal said of Brodeur. “He reads players and reads plays probably better than anybody, just knowing where guys are going to shoot or knowing what you are going to do with the puck. So you have to continually fire pucks at him and be on the attack. You’ll find more success that way than trying to make plays. We need to be at the net, pay the price.”
For Ward, this is sort of a rebirth. The Vezina Trophy candidate won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2006, and then suffered through two seasons of playoff drought. And of course, like most goalies his age, Brodeur was his idol growing up.
When asked if he would be extra excited matching up against Brodeur, Ward responded as quickly as a glove save. “It will always be that way. It’s pretty neat to play against a guy of that caliber and a guy with that kind of resume.”
Ward has his own playoff resume, going 15-8 as a rookie in 2006 with a 2.14 goals against average. And his play has returned to that level over the last six weeks.
“We know Cam has done it before in a real tough situation,” Brind’Amour said. “Goaltending is going to be huge. If Cam doesn’t play well we can pack our bags now, we know that. If he plays well and we play well then we’re going to have a great chance to win.”
Maurice acknowledged Tuesday that the Rangers and Islanders are still bigger rivals for the Devils than Carolina. New Jersey will find out differently on the flip side when the series returns to the RBC Center on Sunday night.
“I’m hoping we can go up there and play well, have some success and come back to just a crazy atmosphere,” Cole said.