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How the Hurricanes Surged Into the Playoffs

A remarkable run leads the Canes to the postseason for the first time in 10 years

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

"Three seconds left. The wait is over. Finally! The Carolina Hurricanes are on their way to the Stanley Cup Playoffs!"

John Forslund's play-by-play call in the last seconds of home game 41, game 81 in the 2018-19 season is, of course, an instant classic.

Flip back the calendar about three months, though, and it might be one of the last things you expected to hear.

It looked as though the Hurricanes, despite coming out hot in early October and maintaining some promising underlying numbers, were destined for another lost season, languishing in what was the NHL's longest active playoff drought.

But, invoking a phrase from "The Princess Bride," another classic, "there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."

2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

During the Hurricanes' annual Summerfest, a weeklong mid-summer event that is highlighted by Prospects Development Camp, Rod Brind'Amour, who had held the title of head coach for not even two months yet, was discussing expectations in a State of the Hurricanes address with the fans.

Someone in the crowd yelled, "Playoffs!"

"Not playoffs," Brind'Amour responded. "We're trying to be the best team in the league. That's our goal."

That sentiment was echoed from the first whistle of training camp.

"We're going to lay it all out there," new captain Justin Williams said on day one. "We're really excited about the direction of this team, and I think the fans and community should be as well."

"It's important to know that what's been going on isn't good enough. At the end of the day, we've got to raise the expectation level of the group and the organization and everybody in it. It's got to be higher," Brind'Amour said. "It's pretty much every team that has the bar set at winning the whole thing. Why wouldn't we be doing that?"

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Hurricanes clinch a playoff spot

The Hurricanes started the season 4-0-1 but then slogged through a 2-7-1 record over their next 10 games.

"At the end of the day, excuses are for losers. We're not going to use them, and I'm not searching for them," Williams said after a 4-1 loss in St. Louis in early November. "We need to stick together. In tough times, that's what every team has to do. Stick together, work through it together because that's the only way we're going to get through it together."

A 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games of November helped the Hurricanes climb out of The Pit of Despair, if only briefly.

In December, the Canes continued to struggle to find the back of the net with regularity and weren't playing at their peak. They won just one of their first six games in the month and carried a 3-8-1 record into a divisional match-up with Philadelphia on New Year's Eve.

"We've got to figure out how to get better as a group," Brind'Amour said following a stinging 4-1 loss at home to Detroit, in which the locker room remained closed for a longer-than-usual period after the final horn.

And, to pour lemon juice on a paper cut, the Canes were without Jordan Staal, who was experiencing post-concussion issues.

The Canes sat at 15-17-5 on the season. They were just a point out of the bottom of the Eastern Conference, two points out of the bottom of the entire league and a distant 10 points from a playoff spot.

The Machine had been pushed to 50.

It seemed the team was dead.

"It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead," Miracle Max explained. "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead."

A 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on New Year's Eve kickstarted a five-game winning streak that began 2019 anew.

That was the bellows that breathed new life into the Canes' season.

"We've got to stick with what we're doing and believe in it. That's the real crux of it all," Brind'Amour said after that same Detroit game. "You have to believe your game plan is good enough to win. I know it is. I've seen it."

Beginning with the win on the last calendar night of 2018, the Hurricanes won 31 of their last 45 games (64 points), ranking second-most in the league in wins (behind only Tampa Bay) and third-most in points (behind Tampa and St. Louis) in that stretch.

The Canes surged up the standings and finished as the Eastern Conference's first wild card seed with a 46-29-7 record and 99 points, the second-best mark in franchise history behind only the Stanley Cup-winning season (2005-06).

Video: NJD@CAR: Hurricanes celebrate win for playoff berth

It was that kind of second half for the Hurricanes. If there was a franchise record, they probably set it. If there was a curse (looking at you, Madison Square Garden), they probably broke it. If there was a career high, a player probably reached it.

So, what exactly was the chocolate-coated miracle pill for the Hurricanes?

The question has been asked. The answer has been the same in that there really is no one answer.

The Hurricanes didn't change the way they were playing, but the results certainly changed.

Inconceivable? Maybe. But not for this group.

The Hurricanes, a team that generates volume in both shots and scoring chances, started scoring more consistently. In the first 37 games of the season, the Canes scored just 91 goals (2.46 goals per game), ranking 30th in the league. In the last 45 games of the season, the Canes scored 153 goals (3.4 goals per game), ranking fourth in the league. Additionally, an abysmally low 6.5% shooting percentage jumped to 10.6%.

Teuvo Teravainen led the way offensively over the last three months with 47 points (13g, 34a). Sebastian Aho wasn't too far behind with 44 points (15g, 29a), and Williams led the team in goals (16) and ranked third in points (33) during that stretch. The addition of Nino Niederreiter, who totaled 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games with the Canes, in mid-January changed the complexion of the offense, as well.

"Probably, I think, the best trade in hockey this year as far as the impact on the team," Brind'Amour said last week. "He came in from day one and was a perfect fit for what we needed. We were struggling to score, and it helped us and gave us some more balance."

At the other side of the ice, the Hurricanes got brilliant goaltending from the tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. In his last 15 starts of the season, from Feb. 8 through April 4, Mrazek posted elite numbers: a 12-3-0 record, a 1.67 goals-against average, a .943 save percentage and three shutouts. In total, Mrazek and McElhinney each posted at least 20 wins over the course of the season, a franchise first that underscored a reliability in net that the Canes have been seeking for years.

"We're real fortunate to have the goaltending we have," Brind'Amour said prior to the last game of the season. "Petr has played phenomenal down the stretch, and so has Mac. We wouldn't be talking about this game meaning something if it wasn't for those guys."

The Canes also showed a staunch resiliency to bounce back from a tough night and not let losses accumulate in bunches. The team lost consecutive games in regulation just twice in 2019 and strung together two five-game winning streaks and two three-game winning streaks.

And with winning came celebrations unlike anything the league has ever seen. The Storm Surge, which only grew more intricate as the wins piled up, galvanized a yearning fan base and angered a small collection of outsiders while generating a buzz and atmosphere that hasn't existed in this area in years.

Video: STL@CAR: Evander Holyfield celebrates with Hurricanes

It was all incredibly special, as the Hurricanes sought and achieved Inigo Montoya-like vengeance in the second half of the season.

It began with a belief, a belief that, even in the face of results that said otherwise, the team could be successful. It started with Brind'Amour's message at the start of the season. Williams, finally a captain in his 18th career NHL season, led the buy-in from the room. As you wish.

"We're a very close team, and we can say it and mean it," Williams said a week ago. "You don't go through a journey like we've gone this year - and hopefully there's a lot more of this story to be written - and not enjoy each other's company. I think you can see that on the ice."

"We raised the bar from day one. We expect to win. Everyone says that, but there's a belief in our group that we can win every night," Brind'Amour said. "There is an expectation that we should win every night, and that's been a little different than in the past."

There's more to be written in this story of the 2018-19 season. Qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs was a goal, not the goal.

"It's been a fun year, but we've still got some work to do," Staal said.

"I'm going to put everything I can into this, as I have throughout the year, and see how far we can go," Williams said.

"This isn't what we signed up for, to end here," 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."

The Hurricanes now meet the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The puck drops for Game 1 on Thursday.

In the words of Miracle Max, "Have fun storming the castle!"

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