Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

Here are two of the weirdest goals of the NHL season (Video)

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Friday’s NHL schedule featured some massive games in the playoff races, some big individual performances, a cameo from a former heavyweight champion of the world and … two of the dumbest and most ridiculous goals we will see all season.

Let us begin in Carolina, where the Hurricanes continued to climb up the standings with a 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues that was followed by the most creative Storm Surge celebration of them all.

The game-winning goal belonged to Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes’ MVP this season, with a little assist from Blues goalie Jake Allen who, well, had a rather forgettable moment on the ice.

Ohhhhhh. Jake.

Jake. Jake. Jake.

Jake.

That is a tough one because pretty much everything that could have gone wrong there ended up going wrong. He not only failed to get to the dump in and stop it from getting to the end of the rink, the puck then took a horrible bounce and went right to Aho who was in the right place at the right time.

That would have been the most bizarre goal of the night until this happened at the end of the Capitals’ 3-1 win over the New York Islanders.

That is Josh Bailey of the New York Islanders accidentally passing the puck into his own net as his team was attempting to tie the game with the goalie pulled for the extra skater.

That is not how you draw up that situation.

The goal ends up getting credited to T.J. Oshie because he was the most recent Capitals player to touch the puck.

Fun night for the NHL blooper reel.

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.

Hurricanes move into playoff spot, keep celebrating like ‘bunch of jerks’

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The Carolina Hurricanes found themselves in the crosshairs of another angry old-school hockey analyst on Saturday night when Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry used his Coach’s Corner segment to criticize the team’s Storm Surge celebrations that take place after home victories.

During the segment, which was basically a 1:17 rant, Cherry repeatedly referred to the Hurricanes players as “jerks” (four times to be exact, including as “a bunch of jerks” at the end) and warned them not to do it in the playoffs because, well, this is the National Hockey League and that’s just not what you do.

This all comes after former NHL general manager Brian Burke has repeatedly criticized the celebrations and referred to them as “pee-wee garbage stuff.”

(You can see Cherry’s segment here starting at the 4:25 mark.)

The Hurricanes, of course, do not really care what the outside world thinks and their social media team wasted no time in having some fun with the criticism.

So guess what happened on Saturday night?!

The Hurricanes won again by defeating the Dallas Stars, 3-0, to move into a playoff spot for the time being by jumping one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins who were on the losing end of a 5-4 decision against the Calgary Flames earlier in the day.

The Penguins still have a game in hand and play on Sunday afternoon (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC), but the fact remains that the Hurricanes are currently occupying a playoff spot. Even if they fall a point back by this time on Sunday, they have still played their way back into legitimate playoff contention and are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, not only for a potential Wild Card spot, but perhaps even a top-three spot in the Metropolitan Division.

They are in it.

The Hurricanes also did what they do in these situations and broke out another Storm Surge celebration by doing … the limbo.

With a minute to play in regulation, fans at PNC Arena, obviously having been made aware of Cherry’s commentary, started chanting “bunch of jerks” as the clock ticked away.

They are not just embracing the criticism, they are feeding off of it.

My stance on the Storm Surge is very well established at this point: It is great, it is fun, and it is not showing anyone up because the other team is already long gone from the ice and it’s for the home fans. And even if it was, if you do not like it as an opponent you always have the option of winning the game. Nothing wrong with showing personality and having fun in sports.  Also, I want to see them doing it on the road, but as Jordan Martinook said to me after a game a couple of weeks ago “that will never happen.”

As for the recent results on the ice and what this all means for the Hurricanes, with Saturday’s win they are now 16-5-1 since Dec. 31, giving them 33 points during that stretch.

No team in the NHL has more points since then.

Everything is clicking for them right now.

They have an outstanding defense that makes them the best shot suppression team in the league (again!) and Curtis McElhinney has been a surprising stabilizing presence in net. That combination has made them a top-10 goal prevention team in the NHL and the recent addition of Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild has given them a much-needed goal-scoring presence in their top-six to go with emerging stars Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

Whether or not this will all be enough to end what has been a decade long playoff drought has yet to be determined, but this is probably one of the best chances they have had to get back in the playoffs. It is also the most exciting team they have put on the ice since that last playoff appearance during the 2008-09 season. They are young, they are fun, and they are building something that is worth watching — during and after the games.

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.

Hot streak helps Hurricanes surge into playoff contention

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have skated their way out of being tied for last place into playoff contention – all in just six weeks.

They have been the NHL’s best team since Dec. 30, going 14-5-1 in that stretch while making an improbable push to snap the league’s longest active postseason drought.

The Hurricanes entered Thursday night’s games three points out of a playoff spot with 25 games remaining, a stretch run that starts Friday night when Edmonton visits.

”The important thing is, playoff teams get it,” captain Justin Williams said Thursday. ”We’re doing what’s necessary right now. We know where we are. All we need to do is keep winning and not worry about what’s going on above us.”

As much progress as the Hurricanes have made lately, there’s still so much further to go to reach the postseason for the first time since 2009 and only the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.

Not long ago, they seemed destined to set an NHL record for futility by going 10 straight seasons without making the playoffs.

And they still might. But at least for now, they’ve made things interesting.

They were tied with New Jersey and Philadelphia for last in the division on Dec. 30 with 35 points, and were one point better than Ottawa for last in the Eastern Conference.

In a relatively short period of time, though, the Hurricanes have figured things out and have become pretty tough to beat. They’ve earned 29 points in that time span, one more than the New York Islanders and two more than St. Louis.

And most recently, they went 4-1 on a five-game road trip. The last time that happened was in 1998, when PNC Arena was still under construction and the Hurricanes were playing their home games in Greensboro.

”It was a big road trip, and we’re doing what we need to do right now,” Williams said, ”which is banking wins and seeing what happens.”

The offense appears to have found its scoring touch, with an NHL-best 76 goals over that 20-game span. Sebastian Aho has 25 points – nine goals, 16 assists – during the team’s hot streak while linemate Teuvo Teravainen has 22 – nine goals, 13 assists.

And Nino Niederreiter has fit right in with his new team, racking up 10 points in 11 games since he was acquired from Minnesota in a trade for Victor Rask.

And with the league’s trading deadline Feb. 25, the big question remains whether the Hurricanes will be buyers or sellers.

Micheal Ferland, acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade with Calgary, is due to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, so naturally, trade rumors have surrounded him. But it might be worth it to Carolina to keep the hard-hitting forward with 15 goals and 16 assists for the stretch run – and perhaps try to sign him to a contract extension.

”I’d like to get a deal done, obviously,” Ferland said. ”We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, trying to get into the playoffs. I’d like to stay here and help this team.”

Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge

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For most of the 2018-19 NHL season the Carolina Hurricanes have been making headlines for what they have done after games.

Their Storm Surge celebrations after home victories has produced a wide range of responses from excitement locally and in the locker room, to some outrage and anger mostly north of the border.

After their 4-0 win in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, arguably the Hurricanes’ best and most complete effort of the season, I asked forward Jordan Martinook what it would take for them to do a Storm Surge on the road, an act that would probably produce the most boiling hot takes hockey has ever seen (while also being wildly entertaining). He quickly responded with “that will not happen. I’m just putting that out there right now. We will not do that on the road. Only for the home fans.”

Hey, it never hurts to ask.

While the Storm Surges are fun thing to talk about and watch, and have definitely helped put a young, improving team in the spotlight more than it otherwise would have been, it is time we started to pay attention to what this team is doing during games.

Because it, too, is worth watching right now.

What they are doing is playing their way back into playoff contention.

They enter Thursday’s massive game against the Buffalo Sabres three points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and actually tied with the Sabres in the standings, making it a huge four-point game. A win in regulation would be a massive swing for either team in their quest to snap what is a lengthy postseason drought for both teams.

Lately, these are two teams trending in very different directions.

While the Sabres are in a bit of a freefall after a white-hot start that included a 10-game winning streak, the Hurricanes have been steadily climbing the standings thanks to an 11-4-1 run over their past 16 games.

One of the biggest developments for the Hurricanes in recent weeks has been the acquisition of forward Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Victor Rask.

For years the Hurricanes have been a team that’s been a sleeper pick because of their ability to dominate the shot charts and the possession game, but they’ve always fallen short of making the playoffs because their two biggest weaknesses have been goaltending and a lack of true finishers on the roster. If you can’t stop the puck and you can’t put the puck in the other team’s net you’re probably not going to win many games.

Rask’s 2018-19 season (and his 2017-18 one for, that matter) was pretty emblematic of the first weakness. For as good as he may have been helping to drive possession and making plays in the neutral zone he was never going to be somebody that was going to consistently finish or put the puck in the net.

Niederreiter will, and in his first couple of weeks with the Hurricanes has been one of their most productive offensive players having already scored five goals (along with an assist) in his first six games with the team. There is an argument to be made he has already been the difference in two wins during that stretch with a pair of two-goal efforts. It was a perfect addition for the Hurricanes because he not only gives them the type of player they needed right now in the short-term, but he is still signed for three more seasons after this one and is young enough to still be a part of this core that is built around Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and what is still a very young, talented defense.

While Niederreiter has given the offense a much-needed boost, the other big question that will determine how far this team goes is what they are able to get out of their goaltenders

Veteran Curtis McElhinney has, quite surprisingly, emerged this season as their best goaltender and carries a .918 save percentage into Thursday night after shutting out the Penguins. Whether or not he’s able to continue that level of play remains to be seen. He’s played well over the past few years in limited action, but he has only played more than 30 games in a season one time in his career and that was four years ago.

The Hurricanes have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league for several years now but always seem to get burned because they haven’t had even adequate goaltending in net. They don’t need Carey Price or Andrei Vasilevskiy to be a top-tier defensive team.

Even decent, league average goaltending what probably give them that and help put them back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In his limited action this season McElhinney has given them that level of play.

If he can continue to do so that development, combined with the addition of Niederreiter and continued development of Aho and Teravainen into top-line players, might at least give them a shot to make that happen this season.

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.