RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The formerly last-place Carolina Hurricanes stormed back to knock out their division’s best team in seven games. Then they swept the second-best team.
Maybe it’s time to rethink the significance of those Metropolitan Division standings.
The Hurricanes advanced to another Eastern Conference final after polishing off a sweep of the New York Islanders on Friday night with a 5-2 victory in Game 4.
And for a team that played its way into the postseason with a hot second half, they’ve done absolutely nothing to play itself out of it. Carolina enters the conference final having won six straight games and eight of nine since dropping the first two of its first-round series with Washington.
“To sit here and say I expected to be here, our goal wasn’t to be one of the four teams remaining,” first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Our goal was to keep playing and be the best team. That’s our goal. Not too many people expected us to be sitting here, but we did. … We’re super excited, but there’s more. We have to do more.”
A little over five months ago, the Hurricanes were tied for last in the division and one point out of the basement in the Eastern Conference.
“We weren’t even trying to envision” this kind of run, defenseman Justin Faulk said. “We were in a pretty big hole there. We couldn’t get ahead of ourselves.”
But starting on Dec. 31, they went 31-12-2 to earn 64 points — the third-most in the league, and two behind Tampa Bay — and sneaked into the playoffs as the first wild-card.
“The guys believed that the style of play that we were trying to establish was working, and would work,” Brind’Amour said. “Now, we’re still here.”
They beat the Capitals — who had a division-best 104 points — in seven games, advancing on Brock McGinn’s double-overtime winner in Game 7. They had no trouble with the Islanders (103 points), locking down defensively on them in two games in Brooklyn before winning two more in Raleigh by identical 5-2 scores.
Now they’re halfway to the second Stanley Cup in club history.
It’s a familiar position for the franchise and its fans, even if it’s still new territory for so many of the players themselves.
The Hurricanes don’t make the playoffs every year — this was their first appearance since 2009 — but when they do, they make them count. Each of the last four times they’ve made the postseason, they’ve advanced at least to the conference final, and have won 11 of their last 13 series. The only losses in that stretch came to teams that went on to win it all — Detroit in the 2002 Cup final, and Pittsburgh in the ’09 conference final.
And now, with the Boston-Columbus series tied at 2 with Game 5 set for Saturday night, Carolina can savor some extended rest time and get some key players healthy.
Physical forward Micheal Ferland hasn’t played since Game 3 of the Washington series on April 15. Another winger, Saku Maenalanen, missed the final two games of the series with an upper body injury. And starting goalie Petr Mrazek, day to day with a lower body injury that forced him from Game 2 of this series early, could benefit from the break.
“I think we need a break,” Brind’Amour said. “Our group, just so proud of these guys. … They just grinded. Wasn’t pretty. A break is what they need more, almost mentally. … We need it.”
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