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First Round Series Preview: Hurricanes vs. Capitals

Canes take on defending Cup champs in round one

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

The Carolina Hurricanes are making their first appearance in the postseason in 10 years, and they match up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the First Round.

After winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 43-season history, the Capitals will be looking to become the second straight team to win back-to-back titles after Pittsburgh did so in 2016 and 2017. The Hurricanes, who have won nine of their last 11 playoff series dating back to 2002, finally get a crack in the league's second season, snapping what was the league's longest active playoff drought (nine seasons).

"It's what everyone plays for," third-year forward Sebastian Aho said. "It feels nice, but we're not done here. We're really excited to get to play these games."

"This isn't what we signed up for, to end here," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "We all understand it's a huge task, but we're not going into this series not expecting to win, that's for sure."

2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Since the inception of the Southeast Division in 1998, the Hurricanes and Capitals have fostered a regional rivalry, the flames of which have never been stoked in the playoffs until now, setting the stage to only intensify the competition between the two teams.

"Playoff series are unlike any other thing. We knew who we're going to see for the next two weeks. We know who we're going to play. We know what kind of team they are," captain Justin Williams said. "At the end of the series, you want to either really, really make them earn it or you want to be able to push them out of it. At some point, somebody's going to give and say, 'It's too hard.' We've got to make sure it's not us."

For a guy like Williams, who played two seasons (158 games) and made two playoff appearances (15 games) with the Capitals from 2015-17, only to sign with the Hurricanes as a free agent and watch his former team hoist the Cup the very next year, this series is a little personal.

"I want to beat the tails off them. They had their success last year," he said. "It's going to be an extremely tough series against a proven playoff-winning team."

By the Numbers

2018-19 Regular Season Stats
46-29-7 Record 48-26-8
99 Points 104
2.96 Goals for per game 3.34
2.7 Goals against per game 3.02
17.8% Power Play 20.8%
81.6% Penalty Kill 78.9%
34.4 Shots for per game 30.4
28.6 Shots against per game 31.5
49% Faceoffs 45.7%
CAROLINA   WASHINGTON

Revisiting the Season Series

As Metropolitan Division foes, the Hurricanes and Capitals met four times in the 2018-19 regular season. The Hurricanes finished 0-3-1, which included an 0-2-0 record in a home-and-home set with the Capitals in late March.

"They're a veteran team. The games we lost this year were tight-checking games that they found a way to win, which is what good teams do. We can learn from that," Williams said. "Playoff time is a whole new animal. Their stats are down to zero. Our stats are down to zero. Off we go."

Dec. 14: Capitals 6, Hurricanes 5 (SO)

The Hurricanes' lone point in the season series came in the first meeting between the two teams, a wild 6-5 game decided in a shootout.

Aho tallied two goals in a four-point night, as the Canes scored four goals on their first 14 shots of the game and held a 4-1 lead in the second period. The Capitals struck thrice in the span of just 5:42 to tie the game, and Alex Ovechkin completed his second hat trick in as many games in the third period to put the Caps ahead. Williams took advantage of a fortuitous bounce with just over six minutes remaining in regulation tie the game at five, and it was Jakub Vrana who scored the deciding goal in the sixth round of the shootout.

"It hurts. We had it, but that's one of the best teams," Aho said after the game. "Again, again, again, we have to learn our lesson and keep working."

Video: CAR Recap: Aho has four points in SO loss to Capitals

Dec. 27: Capitals 3, Hurricanes 1

In their first game back from the three-day holiday break, the Hurricanes made a day-of-game trip up to Washington and came up just short in a 3-1 final.

A trio of power plays could have jump-started the Canes in the first period, but they managed only three shots on goals in those six minutes. Of course, when the Capitals got their chances on the power play in the second period - they also were on the man advantage three times - they connected, as T.J. Oshie redirected a point shot from John Carlson, which stretched their lead to 2-0. Aho potted his 15th goal of the season to bring the Canes within a goal in the latter half of the third period, but that's as close as they'd come.

"At the end of the day, you can look at the box score sometimes and tell the story of the game. Not always, but a lot of times you can, Williams said. "They scored a power-play goal, and we didn't."

Video: CAR Recap: Aho scores lone goal in 3-1 loss

March 26: Capitals 4, Hurricanes 1

Three months later, two head-to-head battles in two different cities over a three-day span wrapped up the season series, and the Capitals took both in regulation, beginning with a 4-1 win in D.C.

The Capitals broke a 1-1 game wide open in the third period with three unanswered goals from Ovechkin, Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom.

"They were good, and we were not. You put those two together, and we really had no chance in that game. It sort of felt like the whole way that we never got to our game. I give them credit. They played a tight-checking game and took advantage of their opportunities when we took a breath in the D-zone," Brind'Amour said. "We don't have a chance to play against those teams if we play like that. That's just not going to get it done."

Video: CAR Recap: Hamilton scores lone goal in loss to Caps

March 28: Capitals 3, Hurricanes 2

Two nights later in Raleigh, the Canes saw a one-goal lead disappear in the third period in a 3-2 regulation loss.

Nino Niederreiter opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game, and Warren Foegele tallied an incredible, highlight reel goal in the second period to help build a 2-1 lead for the Canes.

Vrana evened the score just 95 seconds into the third period, and with 4:56 left in regulation, Nic Dowd redirected a point shot from Nick Jensen for the game-winning goal.

"It hurts tons. Those are real tough losses. We played well and didn't get the outcome," Brind'Amour said. "It's hockey. It happens. You don't always get the bounces, that's for sure."

Video: CAR Recap: Niederreiter, Foegele score in 3-2 loss

Why the Hurricanes Pose a Challenge for the Capitals

Work Ethic

The Hurricanes' work ethic is second to none, and it's a big reason why they're even in this position to begin with.

That style of play sets up the Canes to be successful on a nightly basis. You can count on one hand - just a few fingers, even - the nights in which the effort was missing all season; they gave themselves a chance to win, even against the league's top teams.

Having already established that work ethic is going to benefit the Hurricanes in the postseason.

"There's no real secret. We've worked hard. Our group has worked hard to get to this point," Brind'Amour said in early April. "We've got to earn it. That's the thing. We've been saying it all year."

Leadership

The foundation for that work ethic was laid by a first-year head coach who got his team to buy into a shared goal from day one of training camp.

"Roddy has been unbelievable all year. There's no question. He's created a culture that has brought out the work ethic and determination to be out there every night," Jordan Staal said. "He's an easy guy to follow with his own work ethic and what he brings to the table ever day. The guys have full respect for him and obviously love playing for him. It's been a fun year with him behind the bench."

Brind'Amour knows what it takes. He was instrumental in captaining the Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup championship in 2006. Alongside him was Williams, who is now finally a captain in his 18th career NHL season and looking to add a fourth Stanley Cup ring to his collection.

"Guys expect more out of themselves and out of each other. When we challenge each other to be better players, that's the only way you improve as a team," he said. "I'm going to put everything I can into this, as I have throughout the year, and see how far we can go."

The experience and leadership of those two alone isn't going to make these Hurricanes an easy out in round one.

Red Hot

The Hurricanes won 31 of their last 45 games of the season (64 points), a stretch bested only by Tampa Bay in wins and Tampa Bay and St. Louis in points.

READ: HOW THE HURRICANES SURGED INTO THE PLAYOFFS

It was a remarkable run, one necessitated by the fact that the team that was near the basement of the league at the end of the 2018 calendar year.

Playoffs? This team has been living it for the last three months.

"We stuck with it and created a playoff-type atmosphere early," Staal said after an early-April win in Toronto. "We knew we had to string together some wins early, so we started playoffs in January, basically, and the boys took it from there."

Why the Capitals Pose a Challenge for the Hurricanes

Elite Skill

There is no questioning the skill or the depth of that skill on the Capitals' roster.

"They're a good team. There's a reason they were Stanley Cup champs last year," Aho. "They play a really smart 5-on-5 game. They've got some high talent, but so do we."

From the goal mouth out, it's a roster that can do damage in all areas of the ice, and it's that type of skill that can take over a series.

"The margin for error is very slim. You can't give them easy ones. You've got to make them earn everything they get," Brind'Amour said. "Then it's the mental toughness part of the game. You've got to be able to grind. We've done that all year."

Ever Dangerous

With that elite level of skill, the Capitals are ever dangerous to take over a game, especially on special teams. The Hurricanes saw a three-goal lead and a one-goal, third-period lead disappear in to different regular-season meetings.

If anyone knows what kind of threat Washington poses, it's the Canes.

"They're the best team for a reason, right? They get you any which way. The impressive thing about their team is they've learned how to win. They're comfortable being uncomfortable. They're comfortable in the games that are 1-1 or 1-0," Brind'Amour said. "They're comfortable playing their game because they know it wins."

Battle-Tested

The core of this Capitals team is largely unchanged from a season ago, when they snapped a three-year streak of second-round exits en route to capturing hockey's most prized trophy.

That experience gives this Capitals crew a confidence they might not have had a year or two ago.

"As a team, they're more dangerous because they figured it out," Brind'Amour said. "They always had the team to win, and I don't think their team has changed all that much. They didn't quite have it figured out, and all of a sudden the lightbulb went off for some of their elite players, and now they're the best."

The Bottom Line

A young, scrappy team that surged its way into a playoff spot in the last half of the season going head-to-head with a division rival and the defending champs.

Should make for a fun, entertaining series.

"The pressure from the outside is off. We still put internal pressure on ourselves to perform succeed and win," Williams said. "Obviously, we're underdogs. We're playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions. But, do we feel like we are? No. We're going to work our tails off and see how good we can be."

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