RALEIGH — “I don’t feel surprised at all.”
“He can shake things off like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
“He steps up in big moments. He’s done it his whole career.”
If you’re looking for one reason why the Carolina Hurricanes are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference Final after Wednesday’s 5-2 win in Game 3 of their second-round matchup with the New York Islanders, you’re probably not going to find it.
Surprising? Yes. But captain Justin Williams wasn’t caught off guard by Curtis McElhinney winning his first career postseason start at age 35.
“Awesome for him, we’re proud of him,” Williams added about the 28-save effort by McElhinney. “He’s a such a great team guy. I can’t say enough good things about him. So I’ll stop there.”
Getting flustered? Defenseman Jaccob Slavin — whose two assists in the win gives him 12 on the postseason, tying him for first in playoff points — doesn’t do it, coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
“Bad shift, no big deal. He’s ready to go the next one. Good shift, no big deal. He’s got great focus. Again, he’s elite.”
Making the big play? No one does it better than Carolina’s captain, known as Mr. Game 7.
“I don’t think anyone doubts that that’s still in there or not in there,” defenseman Justin Faulk said of Williams’ big-game heroics.
Add it all together — plus 19,066 rabid fans at PNC Arena — and the Hurricanes now have a 3-0 stranglehold on their seven-game series with the Islanders. They also have a chance to sweep the series Friday at home.
“Destiny’s not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice,” Williams said. “You don’t wait for it, you achieve it, and we’re not waiting around to see what happens. We’re going to try and go get it.”
Williams got his second goal of the playoffs with less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation, snapping a 2-2 tie with the eventual game-winning goal.
Sebastian Aho pressured Islanders goalie Robin Lehner, then knocked his clearing attempt out of midair and quickly centered the puck. Williams found a way to direct the pass past Lehner and in.
“He creates stuff out of nothing sometimes, and he’s been a phenomenal player for us,” Williams said of Aho’s forced turnover and pass.
Brind’Amour, meanwhile, is running out of ways to describe what his captain means to this young team.
“It’s not like he’s the best player out there, but he just finds a way,” Brind’Amour said of Williams. “It’s special that we have him. I say enough about him. I can’t talk anymore. He’s not getting his due because he’s already had it, but he’s our leader and you need that.”
The Hurricanes then smothered the Islanders the rest of the way, seemingly breaking the will of a team that had done so to the Penguins in their own first-round sweep. In the final 14:01 of the game, New York managed just two shots.
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Williams said. “But we’re winning games, and that’s important. We’re finding ways to win games when we’re not at our best. I thought this one was a little bit better, and we’re going to need our best effort if we’re going to win the series.”
The Hurricanes got on the board first when a Slavin shot went wide but Teuvo Teravainen, after stopping it with his skate, knocked the puck in to Lehner’s left to make it 1-0 at 6:41 of the first.
The Islanders quickly tied it.
With Warren Foegele in the box for high sticking, the New York power play set up shop in the Carolina end. The Islanders kept in the zone for 77 seconds, scoring when defenseman Devon Toews’ point shot made its way through an Anders Lee screen and past McElhinney to tie it at 8:20.
The Hurricanes reclaimed the lead just past the game’s midway point.
Just as Carolina killed off an Islanders power play, Faulk came out of the penalty box and received a flip pass from Foegele. Faulk jumped in the air and managed to corral the puck while staying onside and charged in on a breakaway. He went to his backhand and lifted the puck over Lehner (33 saves) for his first career playoff goal and a 2-1 Carolina lead at 11:58 of the middle frame.
The Islanders again got it back, this time when Josh Bailey turned a Carolina turnover into a goal, beating McElhinney from the slot to tie it back up at 14:13 of the second.
That set up another tight third period, but Williams’ goal was part of a dominant stretch that also saw Teravainen get his second goal of the game into an empty net, followed by Aho also scoring with Lehner on the bench.
The battered Hurricanes — who got the injured Andrei Svechnikov and Jordan Martinook back in Game 3 — now have a chance to close out the Islanders on Friday. A win would put Carolina in the league’s final four while also allowing the team to attend to its many wounds.
But first, they must finish off New York.
“The next game’s always the toughest. Finishing a team off is always the hardest,” Brind’Amour said. “They’re not going to go away, but we know that. These games have all been tight, one-goal games essentially, and it’s going to be like that again on Friday.”
And it will likely be a collective effort.
Notes: Carolina defensemen Brett Pesce, Calvin de Haan and Slavin have not committed a penalty in 27 combined games this postseason. The defense as a whole has just 14 penalty minutes. … Svechnikov played 12:13 in first game since being injured by Alexander Ovechkin in a fight in Game 3 against Washington. He finished with two shots on goal plus rang the short-side post in the first period. … The Hurricanes haven’t scored a power play goal since the same game Svechnikov was injured. They are 0-for-23 since. … Carolina won 34 of 58 faceoffs.