2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs game previews are presented by Visit Raleigh.
WASHINGTON - It's the most wonderful time of the year, and for the first time since 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes are a part of the fun.
For the first time, the Hurricanes will face off with the Washington Capitals, a longtime divisional opponent and now the defending Stanley Cup champions, in the postseason.
"It's what everyone plays for," Sebastian Aho said. "It feels nice, but we're not done here. We're really excited to get to play these games."
"You get the other team's best in the playoffs," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "Always."
Back in the Dance
From New Year's Eve onward, the Hurricanes were one of the best teams in the NHL.
They had to be.
At the end of the calendar year, they were an afterthought for the playoffs. They sat near the bottom of the Eastern Conference and were wallowing in inconsistent results.
Then, it all changed.
The Hurricanes won 31 of their last 45 games (64 points) to surge into the top wild card seed in the East, finally bringing an end to what was the NHL's longest active playoff drought of nine seasons.
"It's awesome. It's been a long time. A lot of years and a lot of different players," said Jordan Staal, who hasn't experienced the postseason since being traded to the Canes in the summer of 2012. "This group has definitely been a lot of fun this year. It feels good to be back in the dance and back playing playoff hockey."
"It's the most fun time of playing hockey," Teuvo Teravainen said. "Games matter a lot. There's a lot of physical games. Fans are into the game. It's beautiful."
GAME 1 PROJECTED LINEUP
The Canes have a tough draw in the first round - they are well aware of the challenges the Capitals present - but if this season has shown anything, it's that the team is resilient in the face of adversity.
"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."
Experience vs. Inexperience
The Hurricanes boasted one of the league's youngest rosters in 2018-19, and with that comes a fair bit of inexperience. There's Williams, of course, who has played in 140 career playoff games and won three Stanley Cups. There's Staal, who has 73 games of postseason experience and captured the Cup with the Penguins in 2009. Teravainen and Trevor van Riemsdyk have also been a part of Cup-winning teams, but outside of that, playoff experience is rather scant.
"The worry for me is, a lot of these guys who we talk about haven't been there, it's tough. You learn so much from your first time. I'm hoping it's not a learning experience, but we'll see," Brind'Amour said. "It's an exciting time, and these guys earned the right to be here and to be excited about what's going on. Now, you have to still go out there and make it happen."
"There's nothing like playoff hockey. I don't care what you tell me about any other spot. There's nothing like playoff hockey. Playing it. Watching it. The experience," Williams said after the Canes clinched on April 4. "When your backs are against the wall, you try to see what you're made of. It's a fun time of year, and I'm happy we're playing in it."
The Wait is Over
Some of the playoff first-timers are veterans of the league. Justin Faulk is making his postseason debut after 559 career games.
"It took quite a while. It's just nice to have the story change a little bit," he said. "Hopefully I don't have to sit through a stretch like that again. Chop my name off that leaderboard."
Jaccob Slavin had 329 regular-season games to his name without a playoff appearance, and for Jordan Martinook, 309.
"Every April when it gets going, you can just see the difference. The intensity gets ratcheted up. There's not much ice out there. It's more physical and more demanding," Martinook said. "I feel like my game fits playoff hockey, so I'm very excited to get started."
The Last Meetings
As Metropolitan Division foes, the Hurricanes and Capitals met up four times in the regular season: twice over a two-week span in December and twice in just three days in late March. The Hurricanes finished with an 0-3-1 record in the season series (Washington: 4-0-0), earning the lone point in a 6-5 shootout loss in Raleigh on Dec. 14.
"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."
The Capitals finished the 2018-19 regular season with a 48-26-8 record (104 points), claiming first place in the Metropolitan Division for the fourth consecutive season. Alex Ovechkin scored a league-leading 51 goals in 81 games, and Braden Holtby comes into Game 1 having posted a 5-0-0 record, a 1.60 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage in his last five games.
"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."
ADVANCE AUTO PARTS KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Be Ready
A lot has been building to this opening faceoff. Be ready from the drop of the puck. Take the crowd out of it early if possible.
Emotions will be high with the defending champs on home ice. Counter this emotion by playing a smart, successful game. Mistakes might be made, but counter them with chances at the other end of the ice.
3. Stick to It
The Hurricanes can't stray from the way they played. It's proved to be successful, and it's gotten them to this point. Stick to that game plan no matter the situation of the game.
WORTH A CLICK
- In the Room: Rod Brind'Amour, April 10
- In the Room: Justin Williams, April 10
- In the Room: Nino Niederreiter, April 10
- In the Room: Trevor van Riemsdyk, April 10
- In the Room: Brock McGinn, April 10
- NHL Network Previews First Round
- In the Room: Rod Brind'Amour, April 9
- In the Room: Teuvo Teravainen, April 9
- In the Room: Petr Mrazek, April 9
- Thirst for the Cup: Hurricanes
- In the Room: Rod Brind'Amour, April 8
- In the Room: Sebastian Aho, April 8
- In the Room: Justin Williams, April 8
WATCH, LISTEN & STREAM
Watch: FOX Sports Carolinas (local), USA (national), FOX Sports GO
Listen: 99.9 The Fan, Hurricanes app, Hurricanes.com/Listen