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Hurricanes not surprised they're heading to Eastern Conference Final

Sweep Islanders in second round, 'hope that's not the last good-feeling day' they have

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The chant began faintly in the second period and picked up steam throughout the third.

"Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!"

It's unlikely anyone in the crowd of 19,495 -- a record for hockey at PNC Arena -- imagined anything like this scene even a couple of weeks ago. But here were the Hurricanes completing an unlikely sweep of the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Second Round with a 5-2 victory in Game 4 on Friday.

 

[RELATED: Complete Islanders vs. Hurricanes series coverage]

 

With the first sweep of a best-of-7 series in Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers history, they advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, when they'll face the winner of the second-round series between the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

"Obviously, I don't think too many people expected us to be here, but we did," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "I know that's easy to say now because we're here, but that is the truth."

Before this season, Carolina hadn't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009 -- also the last season they reached the conference final. But with Brind'Amour taking over as coach and Justin Williams, who played with Brind'Amour on the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup team, being named captain, there was a change in expectations.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Carolina surges to Conference Final

Brind'Amour has talked often about raising the bar, and that wasn't simply about qualifying for the playoffs or knocking off the Washington Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champions, in the first round or sweeping the Islanders in the second round.

"I said at the start of the season we're not making a ceiling for ourselves," Williams said. "We're not tapping out at making the playoffs or winning a round or winning two rounds. We're going to see how good we can be, and I said that at the start of the year. I don't know how good we can be.

"But we're working ourselves into the conversation here, and we'll see what's happening."

What has happened so far has reignited a fanbase that was hungry to see playoff hockey again and seems to be fueling this run. The Hurricanes are 5-0 in the playoffs at PNC Arena, where they've outscored opponents 22-7.

Game 4 was tied 1-1 after the first period, with the teams exchanging power-play goals and the Hurricanes weathering the Islanders' early push. Carolina seized control with goals 1:06 apart from Teuvo Teravainen and Greg McKegg in the opening 3:17 of the second period to go up 3-1.

When McKegg's rebound goal at 3:17 chased goalie Robin Lehner from the New York net, the Hurricanes could sense they had the Islanders on the ropes. The crowd seemed to as well.

Video: NYI@CAR, Gm4: Teravainen, McKegg score 1:06 apart

"We smelled blood, absolutely, but I think the fans smelled it even more than we did," Williams said. "It was raucous. I don't know if I can compare it to the Stanley Cup Final, but it's darn near close. Home-ice advantage has been obviously key for us and something that hopefully we'll continue to build."

Williams greeted Lehner's replacement, Thomas Greiss, by batting in an airborne centering pass from Jordan Staal on his backhand to make it 4-1 Carolina at 8:51 of the second. Williams' 100th NHL playoff point (39 goals, 61 assists in 151 games) set off a celebration, and the start of the "Sweep!" chants soon followed.

"That was a really good start for the second period, and we built on that," center Sebastian Aho said. "It was a good first 10 minutes of the second period, and that was the game for us."

The Islanders tried to make a push in the third period but were thwarted by goalie Curtis McEhlinney, who made 26 saves filling in again for Petr Mrazek, out since Game 2 with a lower- body injury. The "Sweep!" chants grew the loudest when rookie Andrei Svechnikov scored on a 3-on-1 rush to increase Carolina's lead to 5-1 with 4:47 remaining.

The crowd hushed momentarily when New York's Brock Nelson scored with 1:09 remaining to make it 5-2, but the "Sweep!" chants resumed shortly after that.

"It's awesome for this fanbase," Aho said. "They've been waiting 10 years. It's not ideal to miss the playoffs 10 years, but now I feel like they enjoy it even more and so do we. But we're not done here, yet."

Video: Canes reach fourth Conference Final in as many trips

That was the common theme in the Hurricanes locker room after the game. They are happy with how far they've come but far from satisfied.

Carolina, which went to the second overtime before finishing off Washington in Game 7 of the first round on April 24 before playing Game 1 against New York two days later, will get some much-needed rest now while Columbus and Boston battle it out in a series that will require at least six games.

That will allow some of the Hurricanes' banged-up players to recover and maybe Mrazek and injured forward Micheal Ferland (upper body) will be ready when the conference final begins.

The Hurricanes will also have some time to bask in the glow of what they've accomplished while recognizing they are only halfway to their goal.

"It's been good so far," said defenseman Justin Faulk, who missed the playoffs each of his first seven NHL seasons, all with the Hurricanes. "We're not done, I hope. I hope that's not the last good-feeling day I have."

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