RALEIGH, N.C. – They brought back a former coach, traded for a fan favourite and now the Carolina Hurricanes have returned to an old habit – winning.
After matching a franchise record with nine straight victories down the stretch and setting the club mark with 12 home wins in a row, they enter their first playoff series since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.
Welcome back coach Paul Maurice and left-winger Erik Cole.
As No. 6 seed Carolina prepared Monday for its first post-season appearance in three years – a first-round series with New Jersey that begins Wednesday night – the players indicated that they were aware of how critical the reacquisitions were to their playoff future.
“Everyone’s known in this organization to be very loyal to the coaches and players that have been here,” said Cole, traded to Edmonton last summer only to be brought back in March. “The way this season’s gone, I don’t see that changing at all.”
The Hurricanes were stuck in another December tailspin when they expectedly fired coach Peter Laviolette. Then, they unexpectedly replaced him with Maurice – who won a franchise-record 268 games while shepherding their 1990s move from Hartford to North Carolina and to the franchise’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 2002 before he was fired the following year.
A few months later, they were on the playoff bubble and in need of some scoring punch to join all-star Eric Staal on the No. 1 line when they pulled the trigger on an equally surprising deadline trade: a three-team deal that brought back Cole from the Oilers.
“It’s just added depth to our offence, to our forward lines,” Staal said. “Anytime you can add a guy of his calibre with his speed, it’s going to add depth to your team, and I think that really pushed us to be a better team through the four lines. It just gave everybody a little bit extra, and it’s been good for us.”
Others also are flourishing in their second stints with the Hurricanes. Third-line centre Matt Cullen was found to be irreplaceable during the season after the ’06 Cup run, so a year later they swung a trade with the New York Rangers to bring him back.
And Anton Babchuk, who was suspended for five days in 2007 for failing to report to Carolina’s minor league team in Albany, spent last season playing in Russia. Coincidentally, his return was announced the same day Cole was traded away, and he has blossomed into a hard-shooting defenceman with a knack for generating timely goals – he scored two late game-winners in a recent 11-day span against Ottawa and Pittsburgh.
“Those of us that get to be brought back are excited and happy to be back,” Cullen said. “It’s a great organization to play for, they treat players right and, you know, it’s kind of worked out. Bringing ‘Colesy’ back helped, and (Maurice) has done a very good job, obviously, so it’s been good.”
Especially, it seems, for Staal.
Carolina’s young star has been the biggest beneficiary of the return of his best friend – Cole had 15 points in his first 15 games back with the Hurricanes, and he set up each of Staal’s three goals in his most recent hat trick, last week’s 9-0 rout of the New York Islanders.
“I don’t think it’s really anything in particular that I’ve done or that I’ve had an effect on,” Cole said. “As a group, the team was where it was at the trade deadline. They’ve turned a corner and maybe the momentum of making a trade-deadline deal, that brought a little bit of excitement and the team has continued to play well.”
Cole might downplay his impact, but there’s no arguing with the results.
Since Staal’s NHL debut in 2003-04, no player has assisted on more of his goals than Cole (38), and no player has assisted on more of Cole’s goals than Staal (27).
“You don’t want to make any assumptions – we are where we are because we worked hard,” Staal said. “And he came in and fit nicely into the puzzle that we had. It’s been fun, and it’s been a good ride getting into the playoffs. But now the real work starts and the fun begins, and I think everyone’s pretty psyched up for that.”