It’s March 4, and the Carolina Hurricanes are in a playoff spot. By most calculations among people that track these things, they have somewhere around a 3-in-4 chance of making the postseason. Moneypuck.com even has them listed with the fifth-highest chance to win the Stanley Cup and, not only that, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the probability of winning the Eastern Conference.
One could be forgiven for thinking that something inside the locker room has changed since the ball dropped in Times Square 63 days ago. Captain Justin Williams says that the belief has always been there, and the results the Canes are getting simply reflect a team taking on the personality and approach to the game embodied by its coach during his playing career.
“The mindset has changed,” says Williams. “We’re winning games where last year we wouldn’t have. I can count more of them on my hand that I felt that we would have lost last year, and this year we came out with wins. At this point of time last year we were kind of pretending that we were making a playoff run; obviously, we were trying as best we could, but it feels a little different [this year], and it looks a little different as well.”
That’s for sure. For one thing, the Hurricanes have a points percentage of .600 this season which, if it holds up, would be second only to the Stanley Cup-winning 2005-06 squad (which posted a .683) in franchise history. The buzz is back in the building.
For his part, that coach lets onto a bit of that mindset shift when asked about it. Rod Brind’Amour has now been in Raleigh for more than 19 years, as a player, assistant GM, assistant coach, and now head coach. If there’s anyone qualified to talk about the Hurricanes of the past, it’s him. But the story of the Hurricanes of 2019 isn’t about those previous teams. It’s about the one currently taking the league, pardon the expression, by storm.
“I don’t think guys really care much about the past. We have a lot of new faces, and they’ve done a nice job here of turning the page, right from day one. Even the guys that have been here - we’re not looking back, we’re looking forward. The approach and the preparation that these guys have really shown throughout the year is why, I think, we’re still hanging around.”
One of those players who has been around for years is Jordan Staal. Since coming over from the Penguins in 2012, all Staal has known during his time in Raleigh has been playoff disappointment. But he knows that this team is capable of ending that streak of futility, and it’s a welcome change.
“The games matter. It’s nice to be in the mix and involved in the playoff hunt,” he admits. “The mindframe has been what it’s been since the start: ready to work, have the work ethic, continue to play the way we want to play and do the things we need to do to win.”
Earlier in the season, Brind’Amour continually told anyone who would listen that the Hurricanes were doing the little things right, and by and large weren’t getting the rewards of their commitment to hard work. The penalty kill was allowing goals left and right for the first month of the year, but despite the eye-popping numbers, Brind’Amour steadfastly held that the Canes were victims of bad bounces more than poor play.
After hearing variations on that theme for the better part of the last ten years, few fans wanted to talk themselves into it being true. But now, it’s evident that Brind’Amour’s faith was correctly placed, and the Canes are benefitting from it.
Staal, for one, bought in.
“In general, a team that goes out and plays with more effort, more eagerness, ready to get the puck, is usually going to get a few bounces here and there,” says the Canes alternate captain. “The way we were working and the way we were playing, eventually it was going to work out for us.”
Along the same lines, Brind’Amour rejects the idea that the approach to the game within the room has changed with the team in the midst of a playoff race.
“We’ve been saying since the first game of the season that the points all matter the same. Yes, now we’re focusing on it more because of the situation, but to ask more of them now makes no sense. We’ve been doing that all along. The importance is ramped up, but the two points count now like they do every game, and we have to approach it the same.”
One of the other things that Brind’Amour remembers from days gone by, and appreciates that it has returned, is the support of the crowd - and the wider Triangle community. A funereal atmosphere has permeated PNC Arena at this point of the schedule for years. Suddenly, there’s something to cheer for, and it’s music to the ears of the Stanley Cup-winning captain.
“You can feel it. There’s no doubt about it. Again, it’s the hard work that all these guys have put in here, and it’s paying off. We know we’re tied to the community, maybe a little different than most teams. The people are definitely behind us, and we can feel it. The guys understand that, and we’re certainly not going to stop now.”