RALEIGH, N.C. – One thing about the Carolina Hurricanes, when they get into the playoffs, they stick around for a while.
They’re in the post-season for just the third time since 2002 but have reached the Eastern Conference finals all three times.
This is what the Hurricanes have insisted they were capable of the past two off-seasons – that had they made the playoffs, all the pieces were there to be a serious Stanley Cup contender.
Now they’re actually doing it. They’re making the most of their return to the post-season with a series of dramatic goals and clutch performances capped by Scott Walker’s score in overtime of Game 7 against Boston.
“I don’t get the sense with this team, and I haven’t, where I ever felt we’re lucky to be here,” coach Paul Maurice said Friday. “The game, yeah, we won in dramatic fashion. But it wasn’t like they dominated us for 60 minutes and we got a lucky break and scored and won, said, ‘How long can that last?”‘
One more round, at least. Next up on Monday night: Game 1 of the East finals against the defending conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that like Carolina has responded to a midseason coaching change by becoming one of the league’s hottest clubs down the stretch.
Before worrying too much about the Penguins, though, Carolina is catching its breath after becoming just the second team in NHL history to win consecutive Game 7s on the road in the same playoff year.
Each of its last four playoff series has gone the full seven games, and the Hurricanes have won all four. Ten current players were on the team that closed its Stanley Cup run in 2006 by winning back-to-back Game 7s. After two years out of the playoffs, they beat New Jersey and Boston in seven games apiece to return to hockey’s final four.
That’s why nobody would blame the Hurricanes if they wanted to skip Games 1-6 against Pittsburgh and head straight for Game 7.
“I think (the Game 7 success) is part of how the team’s built,” Maurice said. “There’s still a lot of people that remember (the Cup) in that locker room, so they have a high expectation. … We are in a position with our team that means we’re going to be in a lot of tight games. We’re used to that – being tied, being even.
“We resisted the urge to try and do something extra special to win that (Boston) game,” he added. “That’s the kiss of death, when you try to force a pass through five or six people because you’re trying to create a breakaway.”
Walker became the Hurricanes’ latest playoff hero Thursday night when he whacked in the rebound of Ray Whitney’s shot 18:46 into the extra session to give Carolina a 3-2 victory.
“If I scored that goal, I don’t think I’d ever want to sleep again because there’d be a minute that I didn’t get to sit there and bask in that glory,” Maurice said of Walker’s goal.
Already vilified by the Bruins and their fans for his punch to Aaron Ward’s face late in Game 5, Walker may have cast himself alongside Bucky Dent as Beantown’s sports nemeses.
More importantly for the Hurricanes, though, he added himself to the team’s growing list of players who have come up big during this post-season.
Jussi Jokinen has three game-winning goals in the playoffs, including one off his skate with 0.2 of a second left in Game 4 against New Jersey and another in overtime to beat Boston in Game 3. Tim Gleason gave Carolina its first win of this post-season with a Game 2 goal in OT against the Devils. All-star Eric Staal capped a two-goals-in-80-seconds rally to win Game 7 of the New Jersey series.
“We’re enjoying the ride right now,” goalie Cam Ward said, “and trying to make the best of it.”
But while the sixth-seeded Hurricanes already have made it further than many experts thought, they insist there’s nothing fluky about their team.
“Any of the pressure that comes off (for Carolina), comes off for all four teams left, because now, all four of these teams have accomplished something,” Maurice said. “There’s something in the bank – played in the conference final. So that’s where the pressure’s off.
“We’re going in there with an understanding that Pittsburgh has some fantastic weapons. They’re a great team, but there are two great teams playing in our conference championship.”