PHILADELPHIA - The last time Justin Faulk was playing meaningful hockey games in early April, his free-flowing hair was a shade of golden yellow that nearly matched the color of the Bulldog logo crest on the front of his University of Minnesota-Duluth hockey sweater.
"It was an at-home experiment," he recalled after practice in Raleigh on Friday.
In fact, everyone on that 2010-11 Minnesota-Duluth hockey team, which captured the first men's ice hockey championship in school history, participated in the "at-home experiment," except for two players - one was getting married and abstained from going all-in on the aggressive hair color, while the other sought a more professional route.
"I think I did it two or three times because the first one, it just came out orange. The next one got a little lighter," Faulk laughed. "We were college kids. We were trying to ball on a budget. It was like $15 to do it at home or $45 to go into the salon, so we obviously tried doing it at home. I think the majority of the guys spent $45 because they had to do it three times. The kid that went to the salon and did it right away, his looked the best."
That was eight years ago. Faulk shed the maize-like shade of gold from his locks shortly after lifting the NCAA championship trophy above his head; his natural color was back by the time he made his professional debut with the Charlotte Checkers in the Calder Cup Playoffs, where he logged 13 postseason games before Charlotte was swept in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That was the last time Faulk played in the postseason.
He made his NHL debut with the Carolina Hurricanes in October of 2011, and after his 558th career game in the league, Faulk finally punched his ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Right when I looked up at the scoreboard, the first person I saw was Faulker, and we both kind of laughed at each other like it's been a while," Jordan Staal said on Friday. "We've been through a lot."
During his postgame speech on Thursday, just minutes after the Canes had ended a nine-season playoff drought, head coach Rod Brind'Amour called over to Faulk.
"How many years, buddy?" Brind'Amour asked.
"Eight," Faulk immediately responded. He knew exactly how long it had been.
Brett Pesce smacked Faulk on his left pant leg.
"Eight, grinding. Way to go," Brind'Amour said before surveying the room for others who are going to get a taste of the postseason for the first time in too long.
Video: In the Room: Brind'Amour Postgame
"It took quite a while. It's just nice to have the story change a little bit," Faulk reflected a day later. "Hopefully I don't have to sit through a stretch like that again. Chop my name off that leaderboard."
It's fitting that, in the game that helped the Canes clinch their first playoff berth in exactly 10 years to the day, Faulk scored what would be the game-winning goal.
The Canes opened the second period with 20 seconds of 5-on-3 time, and after gaining control of the opening faceoff, they rushed into the zone. Though they couldn't connect, the Canes maintained control of the puck as play morphed into the conventional 5-on-4 man advantage, and it was Faulk that made a possession-saving play at the blue line.
With time on the 5-on-3 winding down, an attempted centering pass from Sebastian Aho deflected off the skate of defenseman Mirco Mueller and ricocheted out to the point, where Faulk dove to slow the puck and keep it in the zone with just his left hand on his stick. He then whipped a perfect backhand pass onto the tape of Aho, and away the Canes went.
A minute later, after a few quality scoring chances and a few dogged puck retrievals, Aho fed Faulk at the point. He let go a laser of a slap shot from the point to score his 10th goal of the season and sixth on the power play, which has now connected in four straight games (5-for-7).
Video: NJD@CAR: Faulk blasts slap shot into twine for PPG
That goal gave the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead, one they preserved until Nino Niederreiter sealed the victory with an insurance goal in the waning minutes of regulation.
"Whether it was me or someone else, it doesn't really matter to me. It's just nice that we're there," Faulk said of his game-winning goal. "We've been playing some good hockey, and it was a little bit of a grind to get there for the boys this year."
"It's kind of fitting," Brind'Amour said. "If there was a guy who deserved it, he's been here and suffered enough. It's good to see."
Packing up his stall in the Hurricanes locker room after game 82 admittedly began to wear on Faulk, who served as a co-captain last season and remained part of the leadership group as an alternate captain this season.
"It's not necessarily enjoyable to continually be on teams that don't do well. It sucks, as a matter of fact," he said. "You want to be a part of that fun. That's why we play. It's not just to play 82 regular-season games; you play for the extra stuff and try to get the bonus games at the end. It was tough there for a few years."
Friday's practice at Raleigh Center Ice, then, wasn't too much of a slog for Faulk and the Canes, who know there's more hockey left to be played beyond the weekend.
"It's kind of nice, actually, not knowing when the finish line is. You're not sitting here just counting down the days or games," Faulk said. "It's been fun, and hopefully there's a lot more along the way."
Just don't expect to see a brighter-than-usual hair color.
"I'm not going to go blond. I might do something," Faulk mused. "My hair needs a little trimming, anyways."