Welcome to springtime in Raleigh. Birds provide the soundtrack of the season, pungent scents of grass and honeysuckle fill the air, and azaleas are in full bloom. Warm temperatures send Triangle residents running to their closets for shorts, T-shirts and flip flops. Oh, and hockey jerseys, of course.
When it comes to athletics, there is no question the Triangle has been spoiled. On the heels of a Tampa Bay Rays run that included several Durham Bulls mainstays and, of course, a national basketball championship by the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, playoff hockey has returned in full force to Raleigh.
The Hurricanes will begin a two-game home stretch against the formidable Boston Bruins tonight. This 'Canes team has played extraordinarily well with its back to the wall, cramming just before the final like your average procrastinating college student. Another curious habit: Ever since relocating to North Carolina, this team has made a habit of never doing the playoff "thing" halfway. The team either makes it to the finals (as it has done twice in seven years) or misses the playoffs by a mile. "Go hard, or go golfing"—that's the Hurricanes' motto. This year, the putters are staying in the closet for at least another week.
But just getting to play Boston in the second round required an amazing turn of events in the opening series against the New Jersey Devils. With the Hurricanes and Devils mired in an infuriating dance where neither team could manage to win two games in a row, the outlook for Game 7 two Tuesdays ago in New Jersey was grim.
"I think the way we finished the season helps," head coach Paul Maurice said Monday. "We did lose some tough games, and that's where the lessons are learned. Then, when you lose a game in the playoffs, it's not the end of the world."
In Game 7, when the 'Canes couldn't tie the score for a period and a half and found themselves down a goal with 1:21 remaining in the game, many had probably written the team off and headed off to brush their teeth.
However, those "Cardiac 'Canes" shocked New Jersey and scored twice in that span. Comeback King Jussi Jokinen, who joined Carolina late in the season and is now rewarding the team's patience in spades, took a cross-ice Joni Pitkanen pass and fired it past goalie Martin Brodeur. The Devils seemed to be in the process of mentally preparing for overtime and gave Eric Staal all the time and space he needed. Staal streaked up the right boards and sent a wrister past Brodeur with 32 seconds remaining in the third period to put the 'Canes ahead 4-3, in the game and in the series.
The crowd didn't cheer and confetti didn't rain down from the ceiling; this was a road game, after all. Spectators slumped out in disgust while the 'Canes mobbed Cam Ward and lined up for the traditional series-end handshake.
Even though it was only the first round, it was a series that will loom large in Raleigh's hockey history for years to come. Such was the euphoria that there were hundreds of noisy fans waiting at the airport at 1 a.m. to welcome home their Game 7 heroes, brandishing signs, flags and even a giant Stanley Cup made out of what looked to be a spray-painted keg that spouted red liquid from the top. Caniacs lined the street outside the terminal, cheering as players, coaches and staff got into their cars and headed home. Tuomo Ruutu leaned out his passenger window, videotaping the whole hoopla.
But what did Carolina have to show for this valiant effort? A second round match-up with the top-seeded Boston Bruins, who had finished sweeping the Montreal Canadiens out of the playoffs a week ago to cap the Habs' centennial celebration.
Though Boston netminder Tim Thomas doesn't have Brodeur's impressive pedigree, he put up incredible numbers in the regular season and notched a 1.50 goals-against and a .946 save percentage against Montreal in Boston's first round. He is also a nominee for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goaltender in the league. The Bruins' Butch Cassidy, Marc Savard, and his Sundance Kid, Phil Kessel, have been tormenting teams all season with their one-two punch. Michael Ryder has woken up during the playoffs and leads the team in points, and when the 'Canes look over at the bench, they'll see a team much deeper and more physically imposing than their own. In addition, former cup-winning 'Canes and current Bruins Aaron Ward and Mark Recchi have broken the bonds of brotherhood and are certainly sharing all the hot Caniac gossip with their new teammates.
"I hope [the Hurricanes] have accepted how hard it is going to be to beat this team," coach Maurice said.
As in the opener of the New Jersey series, Game 1 was a disaster. The Hurricanes didn't have the excuse of being nervous or overeager this time; Carolina was the fresher team, having played more recently than the Bruins. After tying up the game in the second period off a fluky Jokinen goal, the 'Canes got in the back seat and allowed Savard to assume driving responsibilities. The 'Canes turned the puck over repeatedly and were outmatched physically. The Bruins scored three unanswered goals and routed the 'Canes, 4-1.
It was as poor a start as one could imagine, but Game 2 turned out to be a vast improvement. Defenseman Joe Corvo gave the 'Canes the lead in the first period with a long shot through traffic, and Matt Cullen followed up with his first of the postseason, a shorthanded stunner off a behind-the-net pass from Chad LaRose.
"Tonight, I thought we played a more patient game," Corvo told reporters afterward. "In the last game we wanted to score two goals on one shift. We were pressing and guys were getting anxious."
LaRose's rise from fourth-line checker to first-line star has been a surprising, albeit pleasant subplot in these playoffs. "This is a guy that's a great story for our team," Maurice said.
"He's a guy that everyone likes to play with because he's excited about playing. He's going to go out there and work his butt off, so he's going to make you look good. He's going to say a few funny things on the bench."
A questionable disallowed goal from none other than LaRose himself ended the second period, but the tally didn't matter. The Bruins couldn't get on the board thanks to Ward's inspired handiwork. After a Staal empty-netter, the 'Canes handed the Bruins their first postseason lost of 2009 and Thomas his first defeat in 12 starts, then flew back to Raleigh with an encouraging series tie in hand.
"That's a tough team to shut down. They have a lot of skill," Ward said. "As a team we needed to respond, and I felt we did a good job."
These two upcoming games in Raleigh will show whether Carolina is talented enough to keep up with the Big Bad Bears. After Sunday night's performance, the 'Canes have proven they have the tools to force Boston back on its heels, a feat not many have accomplished this season. Ward has been simply astounding in net; without him, the 'Canes would already be hitting the links. Staal has racked up the scoring points as he did in 2006 and remains in the top five in league goal scoring. The 'Canes have shown the ability to run several effective lines and have received scoring from all angles.
In the real world, Staal would be able to file a restraining order against Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9 hard hitting All-Star who hops over the boards every time Staal's pinkie toe hits the ice and follows his every move. However, as this is the sports world, Staal will have to learn how to rise to the challenge. Sunday night, he finally found a way out from under his giant, menacing shadow and helped to take control of the game as he does best.
Staal's erstwhile linemate, Erik Cole, also found his way onto the stat sheet, as did streaky scorer Cullen. Corvo and Tim Gleason, the Hurricanes' top defensive pairing, have been consistently excellent. Ray Whitney continues to be one of the best and most underrated forwards in the league. Pitkanen, who all but had his bags packed for him before being thrust out the door by the unhappy fans of former teams, has performed well in the playoffs. (Though please, could he stop trying that same, cookie-cutter shot from the left circle? It never works!)
However, Rod Brind'Amour has been quiet lately, and Sergei Samsonov has seen himself fall into a decidedly secondary role as the season progresses. Anton Babchuk, who wields a 100-mph slapshot and isn't afraid to use it, exploded onto the scene in the latter part of this season but hasn't been able to find his shot in the playoffs and even sat out a game in the New Jersey series. If those three could find their scoring touches again, this team would become a true force to be reckoned with. Perhaps Niclas Wallin could bless their sticks for good luck?
And then, of course, there are the fans. From the expert tailgaters on "Cole's Grassy Knoll" outside the RBC Center on game days to the chorus of cowbells that ring out during stoppages in play, a new, distinctive hybrid of hockey culture has planted roots in the Triangle. The noise in the RBC Center will make your eardrums ache in minutes, and visiting teams have no shortage of compliments for the Mayberry puckheads. There were patches of empty seats in the first round, with ticket prices skyrocketing for the playoffs and the economy providing little relief. However, that likely won't be a problem in Round 2, even though a seat that cost $50 in the regular season now commands $90.
Games 3 and 4 will be challenging for the Bruins; for their sake, let's hope they're prepared.
"I don't think we have a hockey team that thinks this season has been good enough," Maurice said. "The win against New Jersey hasn't made the players feel like, 'OK, we can enjoy our summer now because we've accomplished something.' Part of that is having guys in the room that won the Stanley Cup, so they have a full understanding that they're not even halfway there yet."
At press time, tickets were still available for Games 3 and 4. Visit hurricanes.nhl.com.
Kate Shefte covers the Carolina Hurricanes for Triangle Offense, the Indy's sports blog.