The Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs

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To understand the excitement and emotion Carolina Hurricanes fans were feeling on Thursday night as their team clinched its first playoff berth since 2009, you first have to try to understand just how long it has been since they have had an opportunity to experience that sort of moment.

Chances are, you can’t.

You can’t because there is a very good chance your favorite hockey team, no matter who it is, has never gone through the type of drought the Hurricanes went through.

That is not really any kind of an exaggeration, because Hurricanes’ drought was reaching historic levels that was nearly unmatched in the history of the league.

[Related: Hurricanes clinch playoff spot]

It was the spring of 2009 when the Hurricanes were last in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending with a clean four-game sweep out of the Eastern Conference Final. It was a bittersweet ending to a strong season that came just three years after the team had won its first Stanley Cup. Even though the team had missed the playoffs in the two years between, they were still competitive and right in the thick of the playoff race each of those years.

They may not have been a consistent powerhouse, but they were competitive and they had success. A lot of success.

Surely nobody in Carolina figured it would be nine years before they would get back to the playoffs, let alone have a chance to even think about competing for a championship.

Nine years is a long time in the NHL, especially when we are talking about simply making the playoffs, something that more than half of the league does every season.

It is so long that only three other franchises have ever gone through a similar postseason drought at any point in their history (The Edmonton Oilers went 10 years between 2006-07 to 2015-16; the Florida Panthers went 10 years from 1999-00 to 2010-11; the New Jersey Devils went nine years from 1978-79 to 1986-87).

Think of how bad the past few years have been for a team like the Buffalo Sabres. Their current drought only reached eight years this year.

It is so long that only five players from their 2008-09 roster are still active in the league today.

It is so long that their current head coach, Rod Brind’Amour, was a player on their most recent playoff team, and then played one more season in the NHL after that. Some of the other key names on that roster included Joni Pitkanen, Niclas Wallin, Chad LaRose, and Sergei Samsonov, a wonderful collection of “hey do you remember that guy?” players. A 19-year-old Zach Boychuk made his NHL debut on that team, nearly a decade before he embarked on his current career of following and unfollowing hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter.

There were 137 different players to wear a Carolina Hurricanes sweater during the nine seasons between playoff appearances. There were four different head coaches. There were multiple changes in the front office from the general manager to, most recently, the owner. 

What had to make it all the more frustrating was just how the entire nine-year process went because they were rarely, if ever, actually close to making the playoffs.

Only three times in the nine years did they finish a regular season within 10 points of a playoff spot, and only once (all the way back in the 2010-11 season) were they closer than eight points (they missed by two points that year).

They were constantly an afterthought in the playoff race despite the fact they never really had a scorched earth rebuild that completely gutted the roster. The Hurricanes attempted to rebuild during that time, sure, but they never really went into an all-out tank mode to chase after high draft picks like so many other teams have done. Only once during the nine years did they select higher than fifth in the draft, and that was this past year when they selected Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick. And even that was because they had some serious luck in the draft lottery, moving up nine spots in draft position, and not necessarily because they were bad.

Because of that constant futility it would eventually become difficult for the team to draw fans or generate interest, both locally and nationally.

There is no fate worse in professional sports for a team than perpetual mediocrity, and the Hurricanes were stuck in it for nine years.

If you’re going to be bad, be bad because fans might at least get excited about the prospect of a franchise-changing talent at the top of the draft. If you’re going to be competitive, be great because fans have an unquenchable thirst for championships, or at least the illusion of competing for a championship.

Mediocrity is what gets people to stop caring, and no reasonable person should ever blame a fan that stops caring after nearly a decade of sustained mediocrity like the Hurricanes went through.

Slowly but surely, though, you could see the change starting to build up.

They found a top-end star in Sebastian Aho in the second round of the draft.

They stole Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago as payment for taking on a salary dump.

They started to assemble a talented, young defense and locked them all up early to long-term contracts and allowed them to grow together in the NHL.

Eventually the process started to show itself. For years they would be everyone’s preseason “sleeper” pick to do something special because of their consistently dominant possession numbers, only to always end up right back where they started. Either because the goaltending failed them again, or because they didn’t have enough finishers at forward, or because of some combination of the two. It was always something that held them back.

But this year everything surrounding the team started to charge.

Tom Dundon immediately set a high bar with his expectations. They went after high-end talent by acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames before the season, and even before they were guaranteed a playoff spot swung the blockbuster trade to land Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. Most importantly, they finally got consistent enough goaltending.

They play a fun, fast, exciting style of hockey and are constantly all over their opponents, and they created a fun atmosphere with the Storm Surges, and then embraced — for lack of a better description  — the villain role when outsiders complained about something that was supposed to excite their fans, and only their fans. If you’re not a Hurricanes fan and you don’t like it, that’s fine. Because it’s not for you. And if you’re not a Hurricanes fan, chances are you can’t relate to the frustration they went through and the apathy that sort of run can create.

Sometimes you need something extra to bring you back.

It has been a long time coming for Hurricanes fans to get back to this stage. And this team, with this roster, with this approach both on and off the ice was the perfect one to get them back.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Blues look to clinch Stanley Cup Final berth in Game 6

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Game 6:  San Jose Sharks at St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m. ET (Blues lead series 3-2)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Pre-game coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live with host Liam McHugh alongside Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp. Kathryn Tappen and Jeremy Roenick will provide on-site reports throughout the game.

The Blues took a 3-2 Western Conference Final lead on Sunday with a 5-0 Game 5 blowout win over the Sharks at SAP Center in San Jose. Jordan Binnington made 21 saves for his first Stanley Cup Playoff shutout, Jaden Schwartz had a hat trick, and Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and two assists for the Blues. St. Louis is now 7-2 on the road and have set their single-season record with 11 playoff wins. The series moves to St. Louis tonight for Game 6 as the Blues attempt to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

If the Sharks win tonight’s Game 6, they will force a decisive Game 7 in San Jose on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final at stake.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Final series:

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*If necessary
(All times ET, subject to change)

Blues face prime opportunity to return to Stanley Cup Final

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When you have your opponent looking down and out in a playoff series you do not want to let them get back up.

You do not even want to give them the chance to get back up.

You want to eliminate them when you have the opportunity and remove all doubt, avoiding what would be an all-or-nothing Game 7 on the road.

That is the position the St. Louis Blues find themselves in heading into Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) when they will host an injury-riddled San Jose Sharks team.

The Blues have won the past two games, including a thoroughly dominant performance on Sunday, they are at home, and they are facing a Sharks team that is without two of its best players and potentially a third that will almost certainly not be 100 percent if he does play.

Everything has fallen in the Blues’ favor for this game, and it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to close out a series than this.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just look at everything that is sitting in the Blues’ corner for this game.

  • Their best player, Vladimir Tarasenko, has gone on a tear and is riding a five-game point streak heading into Tuesday’s game. He was always going to be one of the biggest factors in this series and has found his scoring touch at just the right time.
  • The Sharks will not have Erik Karlsson, one of their most important players and a defender that can single-handedly change a team and a game when he is in the lineup. This series started to shift in the Blues’ favor when Karlsson’s groin injury resurfaced, limiting his ability to make an impact. He was obviously less than 100 percent in the Blues’ Game 4 win and barely played in Game 5 on Sunday. The Blues have outscored the Sharks by a 7-1 margin in those two games. Even though the Sharks still have another Norris Trophy winner (and a Norris Trophy finalist this season) in Brent Burns in their lineup, they are definitely a weaker team when one of them is out of the lineup.
  • The Sharks will also be without Tomas Hertl, currently their second-leading goal-scorer. With Hertl and Karlsson out it means the Sharks will be playing a must-win game without two of the top-six scorers in the playoffs and two players that have been involved in an overwhelming majority of their offense. At least one of Hertl or Karlsson has been on the ice for 39 of the Sharks’ 57 goals, while one of them has scored or assisted on 25 of them. When neither one is on the ice the Sharks have averaged just 2.22 goals per 60 minutes (all situations) in the playoffs. Not a great number.

So, yeah, this is a huge opportunity for the Blues and a game where it would probably be in their best interest to take care of business.

A loss on Tuesday night not only sends them to a Game 7 in San Jose where anything can happen, it also leaves open the possibility that one of those two key Sharks players (or even both of them) could be available. Yes, the Blues have been great on the road in these playoffs, but there is no guarantee that continues, especially in a win-or-go-home situation.

Even without Hertl and Karlsson the Sharks still have plenty of talent on their roster, so this game is far from a cake-walk for the Blues. But this is definitely the weakest lineup they are going to face in this matchup and there is never going to be a better opportunity to end a 49 year Stanley Cup Final drought than this night.

If they are going to do it, this seems like the game for it to happen.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Karlsson, Hertl out for Game 6; Pavelski game-time decision

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If the San Jose Sharks are going to force a Game 7 in the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues they are going to have to do it on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream) without a couple of their most important players.

Coach Pete DeBoer announced after the morning skate that defender Erik Karlsson and forward Tomas Hertl are not available for Game 6 against and that they did not even accompany the team on the road trip to St. Louis.

Both players exited the Sharks’ Game 5 loss on Sunday due to injury.

Karlsson has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that has resurfaced in the playoffs, while Hertl had to leave the game after he was on the receiving end of a high hit from Blues forward Ivan Barbashev. There was no penalty called on the play and Barbashev was not disciplined by the league.

Captain Joe Pavelski also exited Sunday’s game with an injury and did not take part in the morning skate on Tuesday but is a game-time decision according to DeBoer.

Pavelski had previously missed the first six games of the Sharks’ Round 2 series against the Colorado Avalanche after he was injured in their Game 7 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. He has five points (two goals, three assists) since returning to the lineup.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

While Pavelski at least seems like a possibility to play, the losses of Karlsson and Hertl are going to be significant for the Sharks.

Even though Karlsson has been limited by injury for much of the season he has still been an impact player and played a huge role in the team’s Round 1 comeback against the Golden Knights. He has 16 total points in 19 games and is the league’s fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs. It was obvious he was struggling in the Sharks’ Game 4 loss but still attempted to play in Game 5. It did not go well as he was clearly unable to play up to his normal level and logged just 10 minutes of ice time, with only three of those minutes coming after the first period.

Hertl, meanwhile, has been one of the Sharks’ most dynamic forwards and has scored some of their biggest goals this postseason, including a game-winning shorthanded goal in double overtime to help the team fight off elimination in Round 1, and one of the power play goals in their come-from-behind Game 7 win against the Golden Knights.

He has 10 goals (third among all players in the playoffs) and 15 total points.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canes’ Martinook, de Haan have offseason surgeries

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook and defenseman Calvin de Haan have had offseason surgeries.

General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday that Martinook had a procedure on a core muscle while de Haan’s surgery was on his right shoulder.

Martinook is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks while de Haan will be out 4-6 months.

The 26-year-old Martinook had a career-best 15 goals with five game-winners, and was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to injuries. The 28-year-old de Haan injured his shoulder against Pittsburgh on March 31 but returned for Game 4 of the first-round playoff series against Washington.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NH and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports