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A look back at the drought-busting 2018-19 Hurricanes

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The 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes ended the 2010s with the team’s first playoff appearance since 2009. Led by a young roster, first-year head coach, post-game celebrations and a pig named Hamilton, the 2018-19 Hurricanes were certainly special.

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Editor’s note: As SB Nation continues to do theme weeks with sports shut down, this week’s is “best teams to never win a championship”. While the Hurricanes don’t have much in the category of “clear cut title contenders that fell short”, they’ve seen plenty of remarkable runs. So, we’re going to highlight a few of those teams, what made them special and what ultimately kept them from winning. We’ll also be looking at two strong regular seasons with heartbreaking finishes. The series featured five total teams, ending today with the 2018-19 squad.

2018-19 record: 46-29-7, 99 points, fourth Metropolitan Division, seventh Eastern Conference

Leaders: Goals: Sebastian Aho (30) Assists: Teuvo Teravainen (55) Points: Sebastian Aho (83) Wins: Petr Mrazek (23)

The 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes season was the wild ride that Canes fans had been looking for since 2009. Desperate to make the playoffs after nine years of falling short, the 2018-19 Canes used an incredible second half and great playoff run to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

More impressive was the fact that they did it with a first-year head coach in Rod Brind’Amour, who began to change the identity of Hurricanes hockey in his first year at the helm.

The team garnered plenty of attention on and off the ice, ending a decade of Hurricanes despair with a bright glimpse into what the future might hold.

The season before the season

The story of the 2018-19 Hurricanes season really starts while the 2017-18 season was still going on, way back in January of 2018 when the first of many changes was made to the leadership of the team. On Jan. 11, Tom Dundon’s purchase of the team from Peter Karmanos Jr. was made official, a change at the top that shaped the months to come for the Hurricanes.

Carolina Hurricanes owner Dundon takes over new football league

With Dundon now overseeing things as the owner, GM Ron Francis’ time with the team was limited. On March 17, Francis was demoted from his position and Don Waddell was put in charge of the front office in the interim. A month later Francis’ contract was terminated, and the former Canes captain’s time with the team officially came to an end.

For Waddell, his move to GM was made official in May, and it was a move that paid off wonderfully for Dundon and the Canes. With Waddell in control of Carolina’s offseason, things started to take shape as nearly every move Waddell made turned out to be the right one.

Perhaps the most important of those moves came behind the Canes’ bench, as Waddell and company were charged with the task of replacing Bill Peters, who resigned on April 20 shortly after the 2017-18 season ended, as Carolina’s head coach. The Canes went internally for the hire, appointing long-time assistant coach and former captain Rod Brind’Amour as head coach on May 8, the same day Waddell was officially named the permanent GM.

NHL: MAY 12 Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Final - Hurricanes at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What Brind’Amour was able to do with the 2018-19 team proved he was the right man for the job, making the playoffs in his first year as NHL head coach with a franchise that had failed to make the playoffs in nine straight seasons.

With the front office and coaching staff set, Waddell and his office got busy building a better team on the ice. The first big piece to join the fold was gifted to the Hurricanes by a stroke of luck, an incredibly fortunate turn of events in the NHL draft lottery.

The Hurricanes entered the 2018 lottery on April 28 with just a 9.9% chance of moving up to a top-three pick, but that is exactly what happened as the Canes walked away from the event with the second-overall pick in June’s draft.

2018 NHL Lottery Draft Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

The decision of who to draft wasn’t a particularly difficult one for Waddell and the Canes, as Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov was the clear cut choice to go number two after the Sabres selected generational talent Rasmus Dahlin with the first pick. On June 22 the Hurricanes made it official, selecting a player in Svechnikov that would be able to immediately help the NHL team on the ice.

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And help the Hurricanes in 2018-19 is exactly what Svechnikov did, as the rookie forward appeared in all 82 games for Carolina. Svechnikov tallied 20 goals and 17 assists in his inaugural NHL campaign, adding three goals and two assists in nine playoff games.

With Svechnikov in tow, Waddell made a blockbuster deal the next day. On June 23, the Canes and Flames completed a massive trade that sent young defenseman Noah Hanifin and winger Elias Lindholm to Calgary. In return, Carolina got what would become two very important players that year in defenseman Dougie Hamilton and forward Micheal Ferland.

Hamilton set a new career-high goal total in 2018-19, scoring 18 goals to go along with 21 assists. In his lone season with the Hurricanes Ferland made a solid offensive impact, scoring 17 goals and 23 assists.

The Hurricanes also acquired prospect defenseman Adam Fox, who was later sent to the New York Rangers after declining to sign with Carolina.

While the exchange of Hanifin and Lindholm for Ferland and Hamilton ended up paying off nicely, it’s the move Waddell made a week and a half later that really changed the fate of the Hurricanes. Addressing a need that had plagued the Canes for years, Waddell signed free agent goaltender Petr Mrazek to a one-year deal on July 1.

With Cam Ward now gone and Scott Darling’s abilities in serious question, Mrazek was given a chance by Waddell and the Canes and he made the most of it. After an ugly 2017-18 season with the Flyers that featured a sub-.900 save percentage and 3.22 goals against average, Mrazek came into Raleigh and put together a really strong season to help the Canes find the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

Mrazek won 23 of his 40 regular season starts for the Canes in 2018-19, posting a 2.39 GAA and .914 save percentage. In the playoffs Mrazek played well through the first two series, posting a shutout in each to help the Canes move through Washington and the Islanders to get to the Eastern Conference finals.

The goaltending moves weren’t done for Waddell though, as the Canes claimed veteran Curtis McElhinney off waivers two days before the season started in October with Darling sidelined with an injury. What was originally a filler for a short-term injury to Darling ended up being a revelation for the Canes, as McElhinney put together one of the best seasons of his lengthy NHL career to form a more than capable goaltending tandem with Mrazek.

The other major offseason decision for the Canes was one that probably should have been made a year earlier, as Brind’Amour named Justin Williams the Hurricanes’ lone captain in mid September following a year of co-captaining from Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk.

Carolina also made the difficult, but, necessary decision on Aug. 2, 2018 to trade long-time forward Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres for a middling return. Skinner was on the final year of his contract, and dealing him was a necessary part of the culture change.

With one leader on the ice, a new one behind the bench, new faces joining the old and a promising rookie superstar in the making, the Canes embarked on the 2018-19 season looking to end a playoff drought that had gone on far too long.

A not-so-great first half

After dropping Brind’Amour’s coaching debut in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Islanders in the season opener, the Hurricanes rattled off four straight wins to start the campaign on the right foot with a five-game point streak.

Aho scored four times in those four wins, kick starting what would undoubtedly become the best season of his young career to date. He finished the year off with 30 goals and 53 assists, both career highs as he led the Hurricanes in points.

Aho also put his name in some pretty great company with a strong start to the season. He recorded at least one assist in each of the team’s first 12 games, making him just the third player in NHL history to accomplish that feat. The other two: Wayne Gretzky and Ken Linseman. You don’t have to know much about hockey to know that sharing a record with Gretzky is good.

The start of a new campaign also brought the start of a new tradition for the Hurricanes: the Storm Surge. Following the Canes’ first home win, an 8-5 victory over the Rangers that featured two goals from Warren Foegele and three assists from Williams, the Canes took to center ice and led the fans in a Skol Viking Clap before skating down the ice and crashing into the glass to celebrate with the fans.

The tradition of the Storm Surge, the product of Williams’ imagination, was born, and it was something that would become a defining feature of the Hurricanes season. There will be much more on the Storm Surge later.

That Rangers win also brought a bit of history with it, as Svechnikov netted his first-career goal with a deflection in the third period. With the first tally of his NHL career, Svechnikov became the first player born in the 2000s to score a goal in the NHL.

After the five-game point streak to open the season, things went downhill for the Hurricanes. Carolina lost eight of its next 10 games, and the Canes managed more than two straight wins just one more time in 2018.

In the 33 games between the five-game point streak to start the season and the end of the calendar year, the Canes were just 12-17-4. Carolina was scoring just 2.2 goals per game during that stretch and giving up nearly three goals a game.

Darling’s play was atrocious and he was sent down and called back up a couple of times. He got sent down following a 6-5 shootout loss to the Capitals on Dec. 14, and he never played for the Hurricanes again.

Another big blow to the Canes in that unceremonious first half was to Jordan Staal, who was injured in a Dec. 5 loss at San Jose. He made a brief return for a pair of games in mid December, but was then sidelined for the next two months.

As the 2018 portion of the 2018-19 season came to an end, the Hurricanes found themselves near the bottom of the league. On Dec. 30, the Canes were the second worst team in the Eastern Conference and the worst in the Metropolitan division with just 35 points through 37 games.

However, things turned around quickly for Carolina, starting with a much-needed New Year’s Eve win over the Flyers. From there, the Canes took off.

New Year, New Team

Carolina Hurricanes v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

That win over the Flyers kick started a five-game winning streak for the Hurricanes, which included four wins over Metropolitan opponents. From there, the Canes didn’t stop winning.

In 44 games played after the calendar flipped to 2019, the Canes went 30-12-2. A team that struggled to put together wins in the first half of the year couldn’t stop putting together wins in the second half, as the Canes had five different three-plus game winning streaks in the second half.

In a year where the St. Louis Blues flipped from the worst team in the league to Stanley Cup Champions, the Canes did essentially the same in the Eastern Conference (though the playoffs ended much less kindly, of course).

As the calendar flipped, so too did things for the Hurricanes. And then came an unbelievable trade, one that became almost comically lopsided in the months that followed.

On Jan. 17, Waddell sent forward Victor Rask to the Minnesota Wild for forward Nino Niederreiter. To that point in the year, Rask had just one goal and three assists in 26 games played for the Canes (he missed a big chunk of the beginning of the year after slicing his hand in the kitchen and requiring surgery).

To Minnesota’s defense, Niederreiter also hadn’t been particularly productive for the Wild. In 46 games, Niederreiter had nine goals and 14 assists.

However, Niederreiter caught fire when he got to Raleigh. In just 36 regular season games with the Canes, he scored 14 goals and had 16 assists. He scored five goals in his first five games with the Canes, including scoring just 28 seconds into his Carolina debut. It took him just 15 games to equal the nine goals he had scored in 46 games with the Wild for the Hurricanes.

It was a change of scenery that sparked an outburst from the Swiss winger and helped to ignite a phenomenal second-half playoff push for the Canes. Carolina won 24 of Niederreiter’s 36 games with the Canes, picking up a point in two others.

The playoff push came down to the wire for the Hurricanes, as it had in years past, but this time Carolina was up to the task. The Canes won four of their last five games, clinching a playoff spot in their penultimate game of the season, a 3-1 home win over the New Jersey Devils.

For the first time since 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes would be playing playoff hockey.

The Storm Surge and the Bunch of Jerks

NHL: OCT 09 Canucks at Hurricanes Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before we dive into the playoffs, let’s get back to the story that filled national headlines and brought a spotlight to the Hurricanes that hadn’t been there since, well, 2006.

That of course was the Storm Surge, the post-game celebration the Canes and fans loved after each home win. It started on Oct. 7 after a wild 8-5 win over the Rangers. The first Storm Surge was simple: a team-led viking clap followed by the squad crashing into the boards to celebrate with the fans.

After a pretty identical Storm Surge after the Canes’ second home win, the team started to get creative with things after an Oct. 26 win over the Sharks. A fake out and some boat rowing signaled that this new tradition was going to take many forms.

The Hurricanes continued to be creative but tame in the next few wins, spreading the love to the sideboards, riding their sticks like a broom, falling like dominoes and splitting the squad up to go different directions. Following a Whaler’s Night win over the Bruins, the Hurricanes naturally took the form of beached whales.

Then, things started to get weird. Svechnikov went bowling into the net, Brock McGinn did his best impression of Thor, Williams took to the bowling lanes and of course there was a lively game of duck, duck, goose.

The next two Storm Surges, following back-to-back wins over Edmonton and Dallas, got even more choreographed, and they may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to some talking heads.

Following the celebrations, hockey analyst Don Cherry coined the phrase that Carolina fans would adopt and use as their personal rallying cry. In a tirade against the Hurricanes’ antics, Cherry referred to the team as “a bunch of jerks.” And the team ran with it.

The fans became that bunch of jerks, the team sold t-shirts and the players brought in. What had been an ill-intentioned insult hurled by Cherry became synonymous with the fun this Canes team was having. And of course, the Canes gave Cherry his own Storm Surge.

A celebrity appearance by Evander Holyfield, some curling, basketball, fishing and hunting would follow the “Bunch of Jerks” tirade as the Canes continued to win games and continued to celebrate those wins down the stretch of the season.

Led by Williams, the Canes decided to end the Storm Surges with the regular season. The final surge, which came after a win over the Flyers, went back to the original.

The new Canes tradition wasn’t loved by all, but it was loved by the Canes players and most importantly the Hurricanes fans. It was a fun event to look forward to after games, and it was one that brought a national spotlight back onto hockey in the Triangle. You can’t talk about the 2018-19 season without diving deep into the invention of the Storm Surge by a whole bunch of jerks.

Round One vs. Washington

Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals - Game Seven Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Canes fans waited 10 years to see their team play playoff hockey, and that long wait paid off with a thrilling opening series against the rival Washington Capitals. The first two games didn’t go the Canes way, as Carolina fell behind 2-0 in the series after two games in the nation’s capital.

But a trip back to Raleigh did the Canes well, as playoff hockey returned to PNC Arena for the first time since 2009. Desperately needing a win to avoid falling behind 3-0 in the series, the Canes blew the Capitals out with a commanding 5-0 game three win.

Foegele scored the first two goals for the Hurricanes, netting his first-career playoff goal in the first period before making it 2-0 in the second. Hamilton scored the next two for Carolina, both on the power play, before McGinn made it 5-0 in the third as the Canes made the series competitive again.

Mrazek needed just 18 saves to post the shutout as Carolina commanded the game. While the 5-0 win was great for the Canes, Carolina did suffer the loss of Svechnikov, who was injured for the remainder of the series after getting into a fight with countryman Alex Ovechkin.

Foegele stayed hot to start out game four, scoring just 17 seconds into the contest to give the Canes a 1-0 lead. After Ovechkin tied things in the second, Teravainen played hero late in the middle frame to score what would be the game-winning goal as Carolina evened the series at 2-2 with two huge home wins.

A 6-0 loss in Washington was followed up by a 5-2 win in Raleigh, setting up an epic game seven between the Caps and Canes that will be remembered for a long, long time.

Washington took a 2-0 lead in the first period, which was cut to 2-1 after a shorthanded effort from Aho for his second goal of the series. After Evgeny Kuznetzov made it a 3-1 Washington lead, Teravainen answered late in the second period to make it a one-goal game heading into the final frame.

Jordan Staal tied things up early in the final period, and things would remain at 3-3 for the remainder of regulation and through the first full overtime. After 11 minutes of overtime number two, McGinn became a Hurricanes hero as he sent the Canes past the Capitals into the second round.

The series was a dogfight from start to finish, and was a welcome, intense treat for Carolina fans that had been missing the edge of playoff hockey. The Hurricanes proved they were a great team capable of doing great things, taking down the defending champs after falling behind 2-0 in the series and not winning a road game until the final chance.

There was also a pig named Hamilton who stole some headlines, something that makes perfect sense for the story of this team.

Round Two vs. New York Islanders

New York Islanders v Carolina Hurricanes-Game Four Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

As nerve racking and intense as the first series was, the second allowed Canes fans to sit back, relax a bit and truly enjoy watching their team play playoff hockey.

The Hurricanes commanded the series from start to finish, as Carolina’s goaltenders allowed no more than two goals in any game and just five in the series as whole. The opening game went to OT, which was won by Staal, and the rest of the series flew by for the Hurricanes.

Carolina out-scored the Islanders 13-5 over the four games, trailing for under 30 combined minutes the entire series. Teravainen had three goals to lead the Canes in scoring in the series, as nine different guys found the net for the Hurricanes, including Svechnikov who returned from injury for the final two games.

With the quick work over the Islanders, the Canes moved onto the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in the team’s 20-year history in Raleigh.

Round Three vs. Boston

Boston Bruins v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Four Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

As quickly as the Hurricanes took care of business in the second round, the Bruins ended Carolina’s dream 2019 playoff run in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game one was maybe the most competitive of the series, as Carolina battled back from an early 1-0 deficit to go up 2-1 thanks to goals from Aho and Greg McKegg. The Canes held the lead for about 13 minutes before Boston tied things up early in the third period.

The Bruins went on to score four in the final frame, winning the game 5-2 to grab hold of the series. That brief lead that the Hurricanes held in the second period and opening minutes of the third was the only lead Carolina would have all series.

Boston out-played, out-worked and just wore down the Hurricanes as the series went along. The Canes ran into a good Bruins team playing great hockey, and the miracle season that had gained so much momentum came to a crashing halt.

Maybe the Canes were somewhat worn out. Maybe Boston was just that good. Maybe it was a mix of both. The Hurricanes, who had been near the bottom of the league when the calendar flipped from 2018 to 2019, made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling out.

Even the most optimistic of Canes fans would have been happy with that outcome if you offered it to them before the season.

Wrapping Up

The importance of the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes can’t be understated. The team brought excitement back to hockey in Raleigh. The Storm Surge and the winning filled the stadium, something that carried over into the 2019-20 season that has been put on hold.

Hockey is more popular in Raleigh now than it has been in 13 years, maybe ever. The 2018-19 Canes were a big part of that. The identity of the Hurricanes is changing, and it started with this team.

While they came up short at the end, these Hurricanes exceeded any expectation. They made hockey fun again in Raleigh.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images