RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Carolina Hurricanes were tired and their spirits were understandably flagging when they arrived at Raleigh-Durham International Airport late Saturday night following a 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round.
After losing the first two games of the best-of-7 series in Washington, they were hoping for a lift emotionally returning home for Game 3 at PNC Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVAS2, FS-CR, NBCSWA).
One came sooner than they expected.
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Waiting to welcome them as they exited the airport was a group of diehard fans, standing by the side of the road, waving Hurricanes flags and cheering.
"It gives you a little extra energy there when you see the people care about us and they're behind us," Carolina center Sebastian Aho said Sunday. "So it definitely feels nice."
Hurricanes fans have been waiting almost 10 years to be part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs again. Carolina's last playoff home game was May 26, 2009, a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final.
Center Jordan Staal played for the Penguins in that game. He and captain Justin Williams, a member of Carolina's Stanley Cup-winning team in 2006, are the only current Hurricanes players who have experienced the atmosphere of a playoff game here.
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"I think as a road team then, it was one of the loudest buildings I've played in," Staal said. "It's going to be really exciting. I'm excited about it. I know everyone in that room is really excited to get out there and play in front of a rowdy crowd and hopefully use that to our advantage."
This area is known for its college basketball, and playoff hockey here feels a little like that with the fans doing coordinated chants throughout the game.
"I'm excited," Aho said. "I can't wait to see that, what it's going to be like tomorrow, and I'm sure our fans will be great."
There's a different feel arriving at PNC Arena for a playoff game and seeing the fans tailgating and playing street hockey in the surrounding parking lots. Some will arrive before the Hurricanes players head home following their morning skate.
"That's what is unique to this place," Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said, "We do it right on that thing. They know how to have a good time. They know how to enjoy the game. They certainly don't sit on their hands and watch."
Brind'Amour knows all about it from his 10 seasons playing for the Hurricanes. He was captain of their Cup-winning team and was still with them in 2009. That season, they upset the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in seven-game series in the first two rounds before being swept by the Penguins, who went on to win the Cup.
No one thought then it would take a decade for the Hurricanes to get back to this point, but their push to qualify for the playoffs over the final few weeks of the regular season brought back memories of those days. It culminated with a raucous crowd of 17,645 celebrating Carolina clinching a postseason berth with a 3-1 home win against the Devils on April 4.
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"It's exciting in here," Brind'Amour said. "It's loud everywhere. Maybe it's because it's your crowd that you think it, but it does feel a lot louder than most places when it's rocking in here."
Owner Tom Dundon heard about the playoff excitement and how much the market embraced the Hurricanes during their glory years after taking over the team Jan. 11, 2018. Now, he's seeing it grow again firsthand.
Carolina averaged 15,481 in attendance over its final 23 home games compared to 12,842 in the first 18. Dundon isn't satisfied with that but views it as a good start that coincides with the Hurricanes' success on the ice.
"I think that's been the hope for everyone," Dundon said last week. "When I first bought the team, that was my point. You can't be mad at the fans if you don't give them something to care about. So, hopefully, we're giving them something to care about."
The Hurricanes would love to give them more, beginning with a win in Game 3.
So far, the series has been a continuation of the frustration they felt in losing all four of their regular season games against the Capitals. They've given the defending Stanley Cup champions fits at times, but haven't figured out how to defeat them, yet.
"They've been tight games," Brind'Amour said. "I think every game we've been involved and certainly had a chance to win. … Last game, they were definitely the better team. So, how do we reverse it? We've just got to play better. We've got to play our game and that gives us a chance, for sure."
It would help if the Hurricanes could play with a lead. They fell behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1 on Thursday and battled back to make it 3-2 before losing 4-2. Then, they fell behind 2-0 in the first period of Game 2 and had to chase the game again, tying it at 2-2 and 3-3, but never getting ahead.
Maybe getting some additional energy from their fans will help them get off to a better start Monday.
"I don't know that it really has an effect one way or another," Brind'Amour said. "I don't think Washington's too worried about it. They've played in a lot of these big games. But you would hope it maybe gives your guys that little extra throughout the game."
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