Have a celebratory Bojangles biscuit today, Canes fans – you’ve earned it. Carolina officially clinched a spot in the playoffs Thursday night in a win over New Jersey, ending a streak of futility that was threatening to enter its second decade.
Simply put, the Hurricanes have been one of the best storylines of the season and their success was far from guaranteed. From the outset, new owner Tom Dundon put his faith in a GM whose last similar gig was with the lowly Atlanta Thrashers, but Don Waddell proved his worth by navigating a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames that brought Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland to town (the deal worked out pretty well for Calgary, too), while later stealing Nino Niederreiter from Minnesota for the ineffective Victor Rask.
And to be fair, you can say the Canes didn’t get enough for scoring winger Jeff Skinner when they dealt him to Buffalo, but Carolina is going to the playoffs and the Sabres are not – so I can’t imagine Canes fans are that upset anymore.
Waddell wasn’t the only question mark heading into this season. Coach Rod Brind’Amour, though a legend with the franchise, was a rookie bench boss coming into a situation where he had to establish both himself and a culture right away. Usually, I give rookie coaches at least one season to find their footing – Colorado’s Jared Bednar being a perfect example – before commencing judgment, but Brind’Amour didn’t even need that runway; he took off right away.
Having the perfect captain in Justin Williams helped. Williams has brought something special to Carolina and in his second season with the franchise, he really earned that ‘C.’ The Storm Surge celebrations have made the Hurricanes viral sensations, but perhaps more importantly, it galvanized a fan base and a team against its detractors. Sorry if I’m getting a little too deep here, but Montreal fans know who they are. Philadelphia fans know who they are. Not every fan base has that, but I believe Hurricanes fans now do. ‘Bunch of Jerks’ may not last as a meme forever, but that sense of community in Raleigh and The Triangle has been established on another level now and Williams was on the frontlines of the revolution.
As for the on-ice product itself, the Canes played some pretty solid modern hockey. Carolina was one of the best possession teams in the NHL and would have been a lock for the post-season much earlier if they hadn’t struggled with inconsistent goaltending for stretches. Sebastian Aho took things to a whole new level with a career-high 83 points, notching 30 goals and averaging more than a point per game for the first time. Even more impressive is that he did so while playing against top competition, logging a load of minutes versus the likes of Sidney Crosby and Jack Eichel.
Heck, the Canes even had a great underdog story in goaltender Curtis McElhinney coming in and basically saving their season when Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek couldn’t get the job done (Mrazek was also hurt at one point). McElhinney, the 35-year-old journeyman, won his first three decisions of the campaign and 19 overall. Eventually, Mrazek found his feet, winning six decisions in a row in February/March and most crucially, his three most recent appearances (surrendering just four goals total in that span), but this team would have been dead in the water without McElhinney.
So there was no shortage of storylines in Carolina’s 2018-19 campaign. Now, they get to play important hockey for the first time since 2009 and it will be fun to see what the atmosphere down in Raleigh will be like. The fans – and the players themselves – have certainly earned the right to go all-out.