The Hurricanes (45-29-7) clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2009 by defeating the New Jersey Devils 3-1 on Thursday. Carolina has 97 points with one game remaining; that's 14 more than last season and tied for second in Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers history. The 2008-09 Hurricanes also had 97, and the 2005-06 Hurricanes finished with 112 points before winning the Stanley Cup.
Here are five reasons the Hurricanes clinched a playoff berth:
1. Setting an early tone
First-year coach Rod Brind'Amour stressed from the start of training camp the importance of establishing a hard-working identity. The players responded by adopting Brind'Amour's personality from his 20-season playing career in the NHL, which included serving as captain when the Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006.
The Hurricanes went 5-0-1 in the preseason by playing with speed and creating sustained pressure in the offensive zone, then carried that positive energy into the start of the regular season, going 4-0-1 in their first five games. With a young team (average age 26), they went through some growing pains after that. But they never stopped working, and that paid off in the second half of the season.
"There's been a lot of reasons, but I think No. 1 is [Brind'Amour]," center Jordan Staal said. "Roddy's been really good this year. He's led the way well and made it easy for the older guys in the room to lead. He's demanded the work ethic. He's demanded that every day and every game, and it shows."
2. Sebastian Aho
Aho, playing center on a regular basis for the first time, probably deserved more attention in the conversation about the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL, and has grown as a leader under captain Justin Williams' tutelage. Aho carried the Hurricanes offensively before a late-season fade that might have been health related after he was shaken up in a collision with teammate Nino Niederreiter against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 21.
The 21-year-old has set NHL career highs and leads Carolina with 30 goals, 83 points and seven game-winning goals (tied for ninth in the League). Aho also has an NHL career-high 53 assists (second on the Hurricanes to Teuvo Teravainen's 54) and leads Hurricanes forwards in average ice time per game at 20:09.
With Aho, Teravainen, a 24-year-old, and 19-year-old rookie Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes have the beginnings of a good offensive nucleus to complement their strong defensive corps.
Video: CAR@NSH: Aho scores empty-net goal to seal win
3. Williams' leadership
The Hurricanes decided to go with one captain this season after Staal and defenseman Justin Faulk were co-captains in 2017-18. Williams, a 37-year-old three-time Stanley Cup winner, the first with Carolina in 2006, proved to be the perfect choice.
Williams set a professional example for young players such as Aho and Svechnikov while also keeping things light. He was the originator of the creative Storm Surge celebrations that followed each home win until the final two weeks of the season.
Ranging from a group jump into the boards to a simulated boxing match with former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, the Storm Surge gave the players an opportunity to show some personality and entertain the fans, who would remain in their seats after wins to see what they'd do next.
Williams still can produce on the ice as well; he is second on the Hurricanes with 23 goals and third in points with 53.
"He's such a good pro athlete, and he leads by example," Aho said. "Still, he can be firm, but he's a funny guy. With young guys like me, he can kind of relax you."
Video: PIT@CAR: Williams buries rebound to tie game late
4. Post-New Year's turnaround
The Hurricanes were 12-9-4 and in third place in the Metropolitan Division following a 2-1 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 30. But they went 3-8-1 in their next 12 games and were 10 points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference following a 2-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 29.
A 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Dec. 31 began a five-game winning streak, and since Jan. 1, Carolina's 29-12-2 record is the second-best in the NHL, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (30-9-2). Aho (15 goals, 29 assists) and Teravainen (12 goals, 33 assists) have paced the offense since the calendar turned to 2019, and Petr Mrazek (17-6-1, 2.25 goals-against average, .922 save percentage, three shutouts) and Curtis McElhinney (11-6-1, 2.84 GAA, .904 save percentage, two shutouts) have provided solid goaltending.
"It's been a little while coming I think for this team to finally just put it all together and make everything fit," Williams said. "We're a young team; a very young team. But we've played enough games as a young team … we're young, but not young by experience in games played, so I like our maturation this year."
5. Puck possession
Although the Hurricanes have sometimes struggled to finish their scoring chances (they are 17th in the NHL with an average of 2.95 goals per game), their ability to generate sustained puck possession and shots in the offensive zone has been effective in limiting the opposition's offensive zone time and scoring chances.
The Hurricanes lead the NHL with an average of 34.5 shots on goal per game and are third in the League in suppressing shots, allowing 28.5 per game. They lead the League at plus-754 in 5-on-5 shot attempts -- 4,229 attempts for (third in the NHL) and 3,475 attempts against (sixth-fewest).
The ability to drive play, combined with the performance of goalies Mrazek and McElhinney, contributed to the Hurricanes' 2.69 team GAA, which is tied with the Lightning and St. Louis Blues for sixth in the NHL.