RALEIGH — Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams both said Friday morning, in their own ways, that they were facing a desperate New York Islanders team in Game 4 that night, and that the Carolina Hurricanes would need to respond in kind. Considering they hadn’t been in the position of having breathing room while facing a team up against elimination, it was an open question how such a young team would respond to the situation.
Spoiler alert: they did well for themselves, and as a result they’ve booked a spot in the Eastern Conference final after a 5-2 win over the Islanders to finish off a sweep in front of a record crowd at PNC Arena on Friday.
The Hurricanes took the game to the Islanders physically in the first period, seizing momentum on a game-tying power play goal by Sebastian Aho before the game was five minutes old. At one point, the Hurricanes had more hits than shots by a wide margin. They knew that the Islanders, with nothing to lose, would throw everything at them that they could, and that expectation came to pass.
“We knew they were going to come, they weren’t going to sit back and make it easy on us,” said Justin Faulk. “They’ve been grinding, they’ve been playing hard all series.”
The Hurricanes have never really been a team that imposes its will on the opposition physically. They’re content to make teams pay on the scoreboard, instead of getting into back and forth battles along the boards. It was an unfamiliar spot for the Hurricanes to be in, but they matched the Islanders physically through 20 minutes, and they could sense that the Islanders wouldn’t be able to keep up that pace.
That’s exactly what happened, and then the Hurricanes pounced. First, Teuvo Teravainen took a pass from a streaking Warren Foegele on a line change. Then, Greg McKegg took advantage of a Robin Lehner miscue to double the lead. Justin Williams finished it off by tipping home a centering pass from Jordan Staal.
In the span of ten minutes, the Hurricanes had destroyed the Islanders’ resolve, and they had done it by asserting play at both ends of the ice. No one’s going to confuse Carolina with the ‘70s Flyers, but the Hurricanes showed a side to their game Friday night that had previously appeared only sporadically.
And it wasn’t only the expected players bringing the bite to their game. Faulk, no one’s idea of a physical defenseman, led both teams with seven hits. Justin Williams threw two of his own, as did Aho, who has found a new level defensively while cooling off at the other end, although his goal to open the scoring for the Hurricanes showed that his offensive touch might be coming back around.
It was a full team buy-in from the Hurricanes. Every player on the roster was +1 or better except Lucas Wallmark and Brock McGinn, both even. When Andrei Svechnikov sealed it with his first goal since returning from a concussion with 4:47 to go, the crowd went into hysterics. Brock Nelson tallied a meaningless goal with a minute left, but other than that the Hurricanes’ stoic assassin, Curtis McElhinney, did what he does: give his team a platform to do what they do. His teammates took full advantage.
As a reward, the Hurricanes now get what is likely to be a full week off before beginning the conference final, either at home against the Blue Jackets or on the road against the Bruins. Whichever team advances, they will bring the physical intensity for every game, not just one period like the Islanders had going on Friday night. With as many injuries as the Hurricanes have sustained in the first two rounds, the break will be a benefit, although how big an advantage it might be is an open question. (Just ask the Islanders.)
The playoffs have taught the Hurricanes so many lessons. They have learned how to close teams out on the road. They’ve learned how to use their conditioning to their advantage, and the required intensity level of playoff hockey. On Friday, they learned how to finish off a sweep, something no Hurricanes team had ever done in a seven-game series. They did it by imposing their will on the Islanders, coming through with an enormous win and yet again proving that their best may still be out there somewhere.
They’re halfway to the Stanley Cup, and at this point, no one should bet against them learning even more lessons on their way to capturing the ultimate prize.