RALEIGH — The wait is over. The Carolina Hurricanes are going back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Carolina’s 3-1 win over New Jersey coupled with Montreal’s 2-1 loss in Washington clinched a playoff berth for the Hurricanes on Thursday, ending a nine-season playoff drought and bringing postseason hockey back to Raleigh.
“It’s been a drought. It’s just been a long journey this year,” first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “The goal was to get relevant. That was the first thing. I felt like we’d kind of fallen off the map. And, obviously, we’re not done. This isn’t where we want to be the final thing.
“We want to be the best team. But there’s a step we have to take, and it’s a huge step. I can’t say enough about the group. I just can’t.”
Nino Niederreiter scored with under four minutes remaining to give Carolina a two-goal cushion, and the electric crowd of 17,645 at PNC Arena watched the clock tick down while keeping an eye on the Canadiens’ score.
“Bob (Gorman, Hurricanes equipment manager) told me on the bench right at the end,” said Justin Faulk, the longest-tenured player who scored what ended up being the game-winning goal on the power play 96 seconds into the second period. “It was like 10 seconds left and right at that last whistle he looked at me and said, ‘Montreal lost to Washington.’ I knew what that meant.”
A team in its first full season with its new owner, a 37-year-old first-time captain, a rookie coach leading the bench, several new faces — including a Russian teenager, a midseason trade acquisition and two new goalies — and a fan base desperate for something — anything — needed all of those elements to wrap up a playoff spot with one regular season game remaining.
“Guys have done everything that’s been asked of them,” Justin Williams, the captain, said. “All the way from the top all the way to the bottom. And that’s what a team is — everybody has their role and everybody’s pulling together.”
And the Hurricanes needed everyone — from their goaltender and top line down to their defense and checkers — to beat a game Devils squad with little for which to play.
With the crowd ready to erupt for the get-go, the Devils briefly quieted them in the first five minutes.
A wrist shot from New Jersey captain Andy Greene made its way through a Pavel Zacha screen and was never seen by goalie Petr Mrazek, giving the Devils a 1-0 lead 4:56 into the game.
Five minutes later, defenseman Dougie Hamilton and fourth-liner Warren Foegele hooked up to get the crowd right back in it.
The Carolina defenseman fired a two-line pass right onto Foegele’s tape, and the rookie winger raced in alone on Devils goalie Cory Schneider (22 saves) and finished the breakaway to tie the game at 10:03 of the opening period.
The Hurricanes entered the second with 20 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play. Carolina didn’t convert on that, but kept the puck in the zone for more than 90 seconds with the man advantage, culminating with a slapshot goal from the point by Faulk, his 10th of the season, to make it 2-1 just 1:36 into the middle frame.
“He’s had, I think, his best year here,” Brind’Amour said of Faulk, who went from being a co-captain last season to an alternate while also being the subject of trade rumors. “The consistency he came with and the buy-in that he had from Day 1. Obviously, we shook things up a little bit, but he was 100 percent on board, and his play, to me, has been great.”
The Hurricanes then went into survival mode. Andrei Svechnikov, who had two penalties on the night, was benched in favor of Brock McGinn as Brind’Amour shortened his bench to three forward lines.
Then, with the Devils getting aggressive looking for the equalizer, Williams found Brett Pesce to create an odd-man rush. Pesce pushed the puck up to Niederreiter, who elevated the puck past Schneider for his 14th goal in 35 games since being acquired by the Hurricanes from the Wild on Jan. 17.
“I came here and I wanted to help the team make it to the playoffs, and it took every single guy to make that happen, and that’s exactly what we did,” Niederreiter said after the win.
Up next, the postseason. Carolina, currently in the first wild-card spot, could climb into third place in the Metropolitan Division or slide to the second wild card. Depending on the outcome of the season finale in Philadelphia — plus what happens with the Islanders, Penguins and Blue Jackets — the Hurricanes will face one of Tampa Bay, Washington or the Islanders in Round 1, traveling for Games 1 and 2.
“That feeling’s amazing, the best part of hockey,” Mrazek, who made 36 saves in the win, said. “We’re in and it’s playoffs, and we’re going to enjoy it.”
Just don’t believe the Hurricanes are satisfied.
“There’s little inches that you talk about in every sport, and as long as you fight for them on a continuous basis … and that’s a team,” Williams said. “I’m obviously very happy right now.
“But at the same time, this isn’t the end goal. This is step one.”