Never out of it.
No matter how many players they lose.
No matter how long they’re down.
This iteration of the Carolina Hurricanes just finds ways to win.
Tonight, it was Paul Stastny finding just enough space on Ilya Sorokin to score the overtime winner.
But it wasn’t just Stastny.
It was veteran Derek Stepan catching a botched clearing attempt from Adam Pelech to keep the zone and get the puck to Stastny.
It was team MVP Sebastian Aho scoring his eighth goal in a potential series clinching game midway through the third period to send it to overtime.
It was Frederik Andersen, playing in his first NHL playoff game since the 2020 bubble, who shut the door on 33 shots and clinched a series win for the first time since 2015.
It was every member of the team who took the hits the Islanders threw at them, who made the gasping efforts around the net to keep the pucks away, and who did what needed to be done to advance.
That’s why the Canes won and that’s why they’re moving on to the second round.
“With the guys we had out, I didn’t know how we were going to figure it out and they just said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re going to do it,’ said coach Rod Brind’Amour on his team’s full effort. “That says a lot about the guys. Just incredible guys.”
Early on, things weren’t looking too hot for Carolina. The Islanders looked the way they were supposed to, a team needing a win to keep their season alive, and they buried the Hurricanes from the jump.
New York outchanced Carolina 25-15, rolled all four lines and just gave the Canes nothing.
And then on a bad line change, Cal Clutterbuck skated down unimpeded and ripped a shot from the right circle that beat Andersen short-side, top corner.
Carolina was in the hole.
“The first two periods, I didn’t know what we were doing,” Brind’Amour said. “Give the other team credit, they were all over us. It felt like it anyway. We weren’t really doing much of anything, just hanging around and the fact that we were only down one was the good part of that whole two periods.”
The second period started a little bit better for the Hurricanes, but quickly, the Islanders were back on the Canes, pushing them to their heels.
But Andersen did not break. The Great Dane played a phenomenal game for his team and battled through the first two periods to keep the deficit to one. NaturalStatTrick.com had Andersen with 1.29 goals saved above expected, including nine high danger saves in the win.
“That was, I think, the best game I’ve probably seen him play just under the circumstances,” Brind’Amour said on his netminder. “He’s been good and he’s had good games, but just in the moment and with how we were playing because we weren’t really doing anything and we needed him to shut the door, shut the door, shut the door, and give us a chance and that’s what he did.”
It could have been easy for Andersen to pack things in mentally when he didn’t get the call for Game 1. He was the undisputed starter heading into the season, but a rough go at it had him looking at the game from the bench.
But patience provided him the opportunity and he took it and ran.
“He wasn’t really an option until tonight,” Brind’Amour said. “So the decision was pretty easy. Raanta was great, he kept us in every game, but when we got the green light on Freddy, Paul [Schonfelder], our goalie coach, is the one who makes those decisions to be quite frank and he was just like, ‘I think he’s good to go,’ and we had played Raanta a ton, so it just made sense. It’s what we brought Freddy in here to do. He missed last year and there was time to get him in here and tonight was the night. Obviously it worked out, he was great.”
After Andersen’s valiant battle through the first 40 minutes, his team finally decided to join him for the third period.
Wave after wave of the Hurricanes’ forecheck crashed into the Isles and started to wear them down. New York couldn’t break out of the zone, complete passes and they were completely neutered, only able to ice the puck time and time again.
“It was pretty evident we hadn’t gotten to our game yet and Freddy definitely bailed us out in the first couple,” said captain Jordan Staal. “We knew we hadn’t gotten to our game and we knew we had to get to it and that was just kind of moving the puck forward and I feel like they may have sat back a little bit, so it got us into a rhythm and we started to play in their end a lot more and start creating chances.
“That’s how we want to play. That’s not always easy. They had a great start in a tough building and gave us a great push. We were definitely fighting the puck a little bit and it was hard to hear out there to try to make plays and talk to each other. We fumbled a few, but Freddy bailed us out. Once we got the four lines going and we started playing the way we can and settled into our game, we started to take over.”
And then the weathering storm of Carolina’s pressure finally cracked the stone wall that was Ilya Sorokin.
Aho and Brett Pesce exchanged chances as the two entered the attacking zone and eventually, a Pesce chip was gloved down by Aho at the backdoor who fought through Kyle Palmieri to drop the puck and brush it in with his backhand.
“The whole series, the whole year, [Sorokin]’s been an elite goalie,” Aho said. “One of the better one’s in this league for sure. Just sometimes it takes a goal like that to be able to win a hockey game.”
Finally, game was tied back and all the momentum was with Carolina.
“You’ve watched us all year,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re never out of a game. We always find a way. Even if we lose, we get going and that’s what happened.”
There were times were it seemed it could have ended earlier, but Sorokin and the Islanders held firm, sending Game 6 to overtime, the second of the series.
New York had the bulk of chances early, however, Andersen wouldn’t be bested.
And not too much later into extra time, it was over.
It doesn’t take much. A bouncing puck, a bad read, a combination of both.
Pelech didn’t make the wrong play, but the puck left his stick with no momentum as it bounced immediately off the blade. Stepan caught it at the blueline and sent it back down to Stastny already in the offensive zone.
From there, Stastny just threw it on net from barely above the goal line and it slid past Sorokin’s lifted right pad, hitting his skate to go in. The Russian netminder either wasn’t expecting the shot or totally misread it. Either way, it was over.
“I just went on the forecheck and kind of flubbed it a little bit,” Stastny said. “Once [Stepan] kept it in, I knew he’d get it to me. I tried to attack. I think I was thinking, I’d have a 2-on-1, but Jesse [Puljujarvi] started coming towards me instead of staying wide, so I figured I’m just going to try to shoot this without looking. I’d done it in practice before, and have played with guys who’ve done it. Alex Steen would do it all the time. Also just the element of surprise. You get lucky sometimes and it was fortunate enough to go in.”
Sorokin had been the Hurricanes’ nightmare all series long. The young Russian finished the series with a 0.929 save percentage and looked like he very much could have stolen the series had he been provided with a bit more scoring support.
But it will be the Hurricanes who are advancing for the fifth season in a row.
“I mean, it’s a big win for me because of just how we did it and how we kind of had to fight through to get it done,” Brind’Amour said on the first round victory. “That’s what’s the impressive part. Nobody’s going to remember it if we don’t continue on and we know that, but we have to take time to enjoy it. It’s hard enough, so give these guys at least a day or two to enjoy what they just accomplished, because that was, I think, pretty impressive.”
Now the team sits and awaits the arrival of either the New Jersey Devils, who have a 3-2 series lead, or the New York Rangers.
Either way, Game 1 will start in Raleigh, and the Carolina faithful will be ready to cheer on the team that just finds ways to win.