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Canes a Win Away From Eastern Conference Final

Hurricanes hold commanding 3-0 Second Round series lead over Islanders

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

Thursday was a warm, clear morning at PNC Arena. The ecstatic din from the night prior had been replaced by wisps of a springtime breeze.

Stormy, outfitted in the Carolina Hurricanes' black third jersey that is a perfect 4-0 in the postseason, rode a scissor lift up to the awning that hangs above the south entrances of the arena. 

As if he was applying a screen protector on a phone, flattening out those pesky air bubbles, Stormy helped affix an enlarged warning flag symbol to the awning's façade.

The warning flag was the seventh in a growing collection that the Hurricanes hope totals 16 in another month or so.

Seven playoff wins down, nine to go.

How did the Hurricanes even get here?

Four months ago, the Canes were just two points out of last place in the entire National Hockey League. A month ago, prognosticators had preemptively handed the Canes a First-Round exit at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Two weeks ago, the Canes were at the brink of the elimination, their backs against the wall in a 3-2 series deficit.

Now, the Canes are a win away from the Eastern Conference Final, and they're nearly the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

What?!

"It's a belief in what you're doing," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "If you don't believe in what you're doing, it's hard to get to where you want to go."

The Hurricanes certainly believe, but they're not getting ahead of themselves. First thing's first: closing out their Second Round series against the New York Islanders, with a chance to sweep the best-of-seven set at home on Friday.

Video: Rod Brind'Amour: "A belief in what you're doing"

"You never look at the big picture. You're always focused on your next game," Brind'Amour said. "Whether we're up three or down three, you want to be desperate to win that game. That's the approach we have to take. You know the other team is going to be that way. They don't have a choice. Sometimes having that tomorrow is not a good thing. When your backs are against the wall, you give it everything you can. We have to come with that mindset, as well."

This Second Round series hasn't been as lopsided as the Canes' 3-0 lead suggests. Game 1 required overtime to settle a scoreless deadlock. The Canes struck twice in a 48-second span early in the third period to edge the Islanders, 2-1, in Game 2. Justin Williams' third-period goal was the difference in a Game 3 that was tied more often than it wasn't.

Game 4 figures to be just as much of a battle, if not more.

"You've got to have the mindset that you're the ones down 3-0. You don't want to take your foot off the gas," Jordan Martinook said. "They're playing here for a reason. We know that. You're not overlooking anything."

How will the Hurricanes add an eighth warning flag to their collection as early as Friday? A litany of factors favors their chances.

Video: Martinook: "We're definitely not done"

There's the play of the Canes' goaltenders, whether it's been Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney. Before being sidelined with a lower-body injury in Game 2, Mrazek posted a 2.22 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts in nine playoff games this year. With the team's full confidence behind him, McElhinney entered in relief and has stopped 45 of 47 shots faced through just over 90 minutes of game time, good for a 1.28 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage.

"I'm so happy for him. He's been a true professional everywhere he's been. … You cheer for guys like that," Brind'Amour said. "He's put in his dues. He's put in his time. Now, he's finally getting a chance to show it. Whether he's 35 or 25 or whatever, it's nice to see when a guy gets an opportunity and excels."

There's the play of the Canes' defense, which has whittled down the Islanders' 5-on-5 high-danger chances from 12 to nine to six in Games 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

As more eyeballs begin to analyze just how talented the Canes' blue line is, Jaccob Slavin has garnered national attention, and deservedly so.

Video: Hamilton: "We've built good chemistry"

Slavin continues to build upon his franchise record for the most assists by a defenseman in a single postseason with 11 through 10 games. Slavin's stick prowess is among the best in the league. In the second period of Game 3, the birthday boy put his stick down in the slot to break up a pass on a mini 2-on-1 advantage the Islanders crafted for themselves on a power play, the latest example of Slavin doing Slavin things.

"He's a great player. He does everything so well defensively," said Slavin's defensive partner, Dougie Hamilton. "Good stick, so fast and moves the puck so well."

There's the clutch performance of Williams, who tallied his 18th career Game 3 point with the game-winning goal on Wednesday. There's the dexterity of Sebastian Aho, who backhanded down Robin Lehner's attempted puck rim to set up Williams' goal. There's the "great … effective" Game 3 return of Andrei Svechnikov, who unleashed a wicked wrister that clanked off the post. There's the energetic, emotional glue that Martinook brings in the room, on the bench and on the ice.

"He reminds me a lot of how Rosey (Chad LaRose) was in the way he plays. Very similar energy and the way he is in the locker room. He kind of runs the room. Those guys are very, very important," Brind'Amour said. "He's kind of that guy that glues it all together."

There's home ice advantage, which has truly been an advantage for the Hurricanes this postseason.

"It's loud in there. You can feed off the crowd, and they get going," Martinook said. "I feel like they're cheering pretty much the whole game, but when they can feel you need a boost, they get going. You can take so much energy from that."

And there's, of course, Hamilton.

"I'm happy he's cheering for us," Williams smiled last week.

Nine white squares await additional warning flags. The next could be added as early as Friday night.

"The last [win] is always the hardest," Jordan Staal said. "We've got to do the same things we've been doing and better if we want to close it out. You know they're going to come with their best."

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