RALEIGH — Coach Rod Brind’Amour and captain Justin Williams delivered on their main promise this season: make the Carolina Hurricanes relevant again.
But that goal along with one to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 were not the ceiling the team’s two leaders — who won a championship together as players with Carolina back in 2006 — had for the up-and-coming Hurricanes.
First things first, the Hurricanes have to find a way past Washington. The first-round series, which opens with Games 1 & 2 in D.C. on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, will give Carolina a measuring stick for how far it has come, particularly since the Hurricanes went 0-3-1 against the Metropolitan Division champs during the regular season.
“At the end of the series, you either really, really want to make them earn it,” captain Justin Williams said, “or you want to be able to push them out of it. … At some point, somebody’s going to give and say it’s too hard, and we’ve got to make sure it’s not us.”
Here’s a breakdown of the series and what to expect.
The Capitals top line has two probable Hall of Famers in captain Alex Ovechkin and under-appreciated center Nicklas Backstrom. On the other wing is Tom Wilson, arguably the most divisive player in the league given the four suspensions the league has handed him since the start of last season. The first goal will be to stop them.
Washington still has lots of firepower beyond its best line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller make for a great pair of second- and third-line centers, and there’s speed and skill on the wings.
The Hurricanes are much improved up front, especially since the acquisition of Nino Niederreiter added even more goal scoring to a group that saw Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen take another step forward, and Andrei Svechnikov continues to emerge as a future star.
“Playoff time, it always seems to be some unsung guys that you don’t think about that happen to step up, and we’re going to need that,” Brind’Amour said.
Still, the Caps have been good a long time for a reason.
Brind’Amour said the team is hoping Calvin de Haan will play at some point in the series, and not having him is a loss. The Capitals, however, will be without Michal Kempny for the postseason after he had surgery to repair a torn hamstring. He played well on the top pairing with John Carlson and logged more than 19 minutes a night this season, making him tough to replace.
Throw in that Carolina still has Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce combining for nearly 88 minutes of ice time a night, and the Hurricanes hold a sizable advantage.
Braden Holtby led the Caps to the Stanley Cup, but last April it was Philipp Grubauer who started off for Washington in the first round. The champs needed two goalies, and Carolina certainly has two.
While neither Petr Mrazek nor Curtis McElhinney has Holtby’s pedigree, the Hurricanes have leaned on both this season and reaped the benefits. Mrazek has had postseason success — despite being just 4-6 in 10 appearances, the Czech goalie has a career .931 postseason save percentage, 1.98 goals-against average and three shutouts.
Holtby is still the more proven guy.
The special teams are pretty equal. The Capitals power play converts on 20.8 percent of its chances (12th in the NHL) and Carolina’s does at 17.8% (20th). The Hurricanes’ PK finished the regular season at 81.6% (eighth) compared to Washington’s killing off 78.9% of penalties (24th).
Both teams are pretty top heavy on the power play, but the difference is one team has Ovechkin. It’s not an accident that 217 of his 658 career goals have come on the power play — he’s lethal out there, specifically from the “Ovi spot” in the left circle.
The NHL is a copycat league, and the impact Wilson had during Washington’s Cup run last season didn’t go unnoticed. That doesn’t mean Carolina added Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook because of Wilson’s impact — everyone knew the Hurricanes needed to get tougher — but it will a big subplot of this series.
Throw in Brooks Orpik — still booed in Raleigh for breaking Erik Cole’s neck on a check from behind in 2006 when he was with the Penguins — and emotions could run high.
The two captains don’t ever back down — Ovechkin is more of a wrecking ball, Williams a pesky and crafty assassin — and may have extra ammunition against each other as former teammates.
Both coaches are rookies and former players, but Brind’Amour deserves the “been there, done that” advantage over Todd Reirden.
Not many teams get on the upswing and storm the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Year 1. This feels like the type of series that could swing on one big hit or clutch goal.
I truly believe Carolina could pull off a stunner, but logic says the Capitals will be too much. The Hurricanes, however, will take enough of a bite out of Washington to assist in derailing the repeat train.
Series: Washington in 7