Each Friday throughout the season Kevin Weekes will bring you his Friday Four. He will be blogging about four players, teams, plays, or trends that have caught his eye.
What a season it's been for the Hurricanes, and for the first time since 2009 it will not end when the regular season does.
The Hurricanes clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday in front of their home fans with a 3-1 win against the New Jersey Devils. They hold the first wild card in the Eastern Conference and still could finish as high as third in the Metropolitan Division. Coach Rod Brind'Amour deserves a lot of the credit for the turnaround; he's been able to blend young players and veterans, and he's created a fun atmosphere on and off the ice.
Their 37-year-old captain Justin Williams, a forward who was on the Hurricanes in 2006 when they won the Stanley Cup, has been the off-ice leader. He's also contributed on the ice with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists). That's his highest point total since he had 59 with the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12. Forwards Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and rookie Andrei Svechnikov have led the way offensively, and goalies Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have shut the door defensively.
I said at the beginning of the season that I expected the Hurricanes to be disrupters in the East and wouldn't be surprised if they made the playoffs. This team is enjoying itself every night, and I wouldn't want to play them in the first round.
Video: NJD@CAR: Hurricanes celebrate win for playoff berth
Jim Montgomery has done a terrific job in his first NHL season after five seasons coaching at Denver University. The whole staff in Dallas, including assistants Stu Barnes and Rick Bowness as well as goalie coach Jeff Reese, have turned the team around. The Stars also avoided distractions after CEO Jim Lites had some negative things to say about forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in December.
Miro Heiskanen has flourished in his rookie season, joining John Klingberg and Esa Lindell to make up a formidable defense corps. Add to that goalie Ben Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, and the back end was shored up this season. Benn hasn't produced as much as he's used to (his 52 points are the fewest he's had in a full season since had 41 as a rookie in 2009-10), but he, Seguin and Alexander Radulov bring it each and every night.
They had such a hot start to the season (17-7-5) before winning three times in 21 games (3-13-5). But here we are on April 5 and they've clinched a playoff berth for the second straight season.
Goalie Semyon Varlamov and the top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen carried them during the first half of the season, but it's been a different story since. Philipp Grubauer now is the starting goalie, and rightly so; he's 9-2-2 with a 1.45 goals-against average, .955 save percentage and three shutouts since Feb. 12. Guys like Alexander Kerfoot, Colin Wilson and Carl Soderberg stepped up offensively when Landeskog and Rantanen were out with injuries. Also, defenseman Tyson Barrie has had his best NHL season with 59 points (14 goals, 45 assists).
Video: Penguins, Hurricanes, Avalanche clinch on Thursday
One spot left
Fifteen of the 16 playoff spots have been decided. There's just one left, and it will go to the Columbus Blue Jackets or the Montreal Canadiens. Columbus has the inside track and can clinch with a win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday (7 p.m. ET; TVAS, MSG+, FS-O, NHL.TV). Otherwise it will come down to the last day of the season on Saturday, when the Blue Jackets play the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre, and the Canadiens play the Toronto Maple Leafs at Bell Centre.
If the Blue Jackets do get in, they can thank goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who turned up his game the past two months and has been locked in, including recently winning five straight. They also have seven players who have scored at least 20 goals this season (Cam Atkinson, 41; Josh Anderson, 27; Artemi Panarin, 27; Pierre-Luc Dubois, 25; Oliver Bjorkstrand, 22; also, Matt Duchene, 31, and Ryan Dzingel, 25, each has more than 20 this season between the Blue Jackets and Senators). That kind of scoring depth is huge.
Hat tip to the Arizona Coyotes, who fell just short of a playoff berth. They were ravaged by injuries this season and stayed in the race the entire way. Losing starting goalie Antti Raanta in November could have ended their season, but Darcy Kuemper stepped up and was one of the best goalies in the NHL during the second half. With some veterans and an infusion of youth, the future is bright in Arizona.