Having won the Stanley Cup just three years ago, the Canes have a number of players with significant playoff experience.
Rod Brind’Amour and Ray Whitney, two important leadership components of the 2006 team, haven’t gone anywhere. Eric Staal
and Cam Ward
have only been in the playoffs once, but accomplished more in that year than most do in a career.
Frantisek Kaberle, Chad LaRose, and Niclas Wallin are still around. Erik Cole and Matt Cullen left the team for one reason or another, but not for long.
Although it was with other clubs, Joe Corvo, Patrick Eaves and Sergei Samsonov have all been to the finals. Joni Pitkanen made it to the final four with Philadelphia prior to the lockout.
When looking at the experience of this team, almost all the core players have been there before – except for two.
Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu will make their first appearance in the NHL postseason next week. At 26 years of age and in only their fifth year in the league, they aren’t old by any means. Still, given how important they are to the success of this year’s team – Ruutu plays on the top forward line and Gleason on the top defensive pairing – the opportunity seems like a long time coming.
“It’s huge,” said Ruutu of finally getting to the playoffs after missing out three times with Chicago and once with Carolina. “It’s been frustrating because you play to win, and I want to test myself and see how I’m going to do.”
“It’s a really fun time of year,” said Gleason, who spent his first two seasons with Los Angeles before coming to the Hurricanes. “I’m looking forward to my first time and my first opportunity here.”
What’s ironic about those two never having been to the playoffs is that, out of everyone on the team, their game may be most suited to them. Both play a grinding, physical style that should help the Canes immensely in the second season.
“You would expect that kind of hockey,” said Coach Paul Maurice. “They bang a little bit and compete real hard on a nightly basis. I’m not expecting a whole lot of nerves out of those two guys because that hockey is built for them.”
Missing the cut last season was especially difficult for Gleason and Ruutu, who were preparing for the playoffs last season before a late charge by division rival Washington knocked them out in the final days of last season – a campaign in which they had been pacing the Southeast virtually the entire way.
While that stung at the time, it may have played a key role in what has happened in 2009.
“Last year, to be honest, was the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had,” said Ruutu. “We were so close to the playoffs and I was so excited about it, and all of the sudden you’re out by two points. I think that’s probably been the difference this year. Guys remember that feeling in the locker room. It drives you and makes you try even harder.”
Although they’ve never been there in the NHL, both players have had success in other leagues and formats.
Ruutu has excelled in eight major international tournaments with his native Finland, winning one gold, one silver and two bronze medals while twice serving as a team captain and twice leading the team in scoring.
Gleason, a big time point producer in junior hockey, racked up 20 points in 16 playoff games for the Windsor Spitfires in 2002 – a notable increase in his points-per-game pace from the regular season and an indication that he can step it up when it matters most.
“I don’t know what the playoffs are like obviously, but I’m familiar to what the playoffs are,” said Gleason. “Even though I haven’t played, I watch, and I’ve been in playoffs prior to that in other leagues.”
With the combination of veteran savvy from the older players and first-time enthusiasm from those two, the Canes have a mix that they like heading into this year’s postseason.
“There’s some excitement there on both ends,” said Maurice. “The guys that have been to the playoffs know how fun this is, and then there’s a little wide-eyed excitement about getting into it. They’ve earned it, they’ve played well to get there and it will be exciting for them.”