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Finding a way: The story of the Hurricanes’ 20-7-1 start

Throughout the first half of this season, the Hurricanes have displayed a new-found knack for winning games then they’re not at their best.

Nashville Predators v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

“Good teams find a way to win” is one of the oldest sports cliches on the face of the Earth, but it’s no less true.

In a full season of any sport, it’s virtually impossible for any team to be at the top of its game night and in and night out. The teams that most often find a way to ride a few clutch plays to victory when they don’t have their “A game” are going to be the most successful.

In hockey, “good teams find a way to win” can mean a hot night featuring some timely saves from a goalie, star forwards stepping up to score a couple big goals, or elite special teams units performing at a high level. And, in a twist that would have seemed unfathomable just a few years ago, the hockey rendition of “good teams find a way to win” has almost become a team mantra for the 2021 Carolina Hurricanes through the first half of the season.

It’s not that it’s a phrase the Hurricanes were unfamiliar with during their near decade in the hockey wilderness prior to the start of the Rod Brind’Amour regime. But it almost never had positive connotations.

It would normally be a rebuttal from players, coaches, fans and media alike to those who point out after a hard-luck loss in which the Hurricanes put forth a strong effort and peppered an opposing goalie with shot after shot that if they could have just gotten a couple bounces, or better goaltending, they’d have come away victorious. All too often, the Hurricanes were the team felt it deserved a better result based on its full 60-minute effort, but fell victim to a hot goalie or elite goal scorers making plays in key moments.

But with the 2021 Hurricanes off to an excellent start, those days are mostly (last night’s game was a bit of a reminder, but the larger trend remains) fading further and further from memory with every game. The Hurricanes are the team that can come up with a victory when not at their best thanks to strong special teams, or clutch goals from star players or a big night in net.

That’s not to say that Carolina has completely sleepwalked its way to a 20-7-1 start,There have been plenty of nights where this team “played a full 60 minutes” and its full ability on those nights was on display.

But, especially in a 56-game season with a schedule even further compressed by Carolina’s 10-day COVID pause in January, going pedal to the metal every night from puck drop to the final buzzer just isn’t possible. But, unlike in years past, there have been plenty of nights where the Canes have ridden the league’s top-ranked power play, top-10 penalty kill or clutch goals from the likes of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck, Martin Necas, Jordan Staal and Nino Niederreiter.

Goaltending has been an adventure at times this season, but over this winning streak, Alex Nedeljkovic has been lights out and helped propel the Hurricanes, and Petr Mrazek was dynamite for four games to start the year before suffering a broken thumb.

On the nights when the Canes aren’t necessarily at their best for 60 minutes but ride star power, or hot goaltending or special teams, to a win, the refrain in the postgame is usually the same. Something along the lines of “we have to play 60 minutes,” followed by some variation of “good teams find a way to win.”

What was once a reason for the Canes’ failure to get over the hump is now their rallying cry. Take last week’s 3-2 overtime victory over Nashville for example. The Canes stumbled through the first half of the game and found themselves down 2-0. But Nedeljkovic kept them in it, and two quick strikes on the power play from Staal and Aho on the power play tied the game before Staal won it in overtime.

For so many prior years, the Canes’ best path to victory was coming up with a near perfect effort and crossing their fingers for some timely goals and saves. If they weren’t at their best for a full 60, the path to victory would be steep.

After the Nashville win, Aho, Staal and Brind’Amour were all asked about the Hurricanes’ newfound ability to win on nights when they don’t have their best. Staal pointed to their performance on special teams. Brind’Amour offered up “we’ve got better players, up and down the lineup.”

That’s certainly true, with the infusion of skill over the last few years that includes Niederreiter, Necas, Trocheck, Dougie Hamilton and growth from Svechnikov making the Canes’ lineup that much more dangerous.

For Aho, who’s been here since 2016-17, the difference is night and day.

“So many things changed from then, when I think about anything from a few years ago,” Aho said. “I think that’s a good sign, to win on tough nights. … “There’s a lot of things, but it’s a good thing to win when you don’t play your best game.”

The Hurricanes know they need to find a way to play “their game” for a full 60 minutes more often the second half of these season. They’ve said as much. But there’s still going to be nights when they just don’t happen.

What separates good teams from bad teams, and great teams from good teams, is an ability to win when their best isn’t there. That’s an ability the Hurricanes have displayed, even with Mrazek missing most of the season, and top playmaker Teuvo Teravainen rarely being healthy.

Good teams find a way to win. And it’s clear through half the season that these Hurricanes are a very, very good team.