NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The team most everyone left for dead is taking on a “Bunch of Jerks” in the second round of the playoffs.
The Islanders and Hurricanes will open their Eastern Conference semifinals series on Friday at Barclays Center after pulling off equally impressive upsets in the opening round. New York shocked the NHL by sweeping the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins, winners of two of the last three Stanley Cups, while Carolina kept its season alive with a come-from-behind, double-overtime win over the defending champion Washington Capitals in Game 7 on Wednesday.
Very few thought a matchup like this was possible, but there’s no question each team deserves to be where they are.
“I think Carolina is a lot more similar to what we are,” Islanders goalie Robin Lehner said recently. “They’re very, very good defensively. They play well in all three zones. They work really, really hard.”
There’s at least the possibility that the Hurricanes will struggle somewhat with their endurance in Game 1, given all the energy the expended to rally from a 3-2 series deficit to beat Washington. Meanwhile, 10 days will have passed since the Islanders pulled off their Game 4 win in Pittsburgh, so it might take them a little while to get going.
“Honestly,” Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said, “I just want to play.”
Hurricanes defenseman Calvin de Haan was at a loss for words about what comes next.
Minutes after Carolina shocked Washington on Wednesday, he wasn’t yet ready to turn his attention to facing the Islanders, the team with which he played his last five NHL seasons before signing with the Hurricanes as a free agent last summer.
“They had a great season,” de Haan said of the Islanders. “A lot of personnel changes and they brought some new guys in. They finished where they did for a reason and their goaltending’s been rock solid this year. That’s probably been their biggest asset. They played well structurally, and they seem to be opportunistic a little more than when I played there.”
Carolina captain Justin Williams believes it’s “wide open” for the Hurricanes and every team, which is especially true after all four wild-card teams moved on and all four division winners were knocked out in the first round for the first time in NHL history. Williams assisted on Brock McGinn’s double OT goal on Wednesday to add to his NHL record Game 7 point total that reached 15, but the former Capitals winger and three-time Cup champion doesn’t want this to be about him.
“This is not my story,” Williams said. “This is the Hurricanes’ story, and I’m proud of every single one of our guys. We’re not done. We won a series.”
Trotz knows all too well what Williams and the rest of the Hurricanes under motivational head coach Rod Brind’Amour are capable of.
“I’ve had Justin Williams and I know his character, I know his leadership. I know that team in Carolina, you watch them, they have a lot of heart. They have some highly skilled players. They might have one of the most underrated ‘D’ corps in the National Hockey League,” said Trotz, who led Washington to the franchise’s only championship last season.
“You talk about a team playing as a team, they’re playing as a team.”
The Hurricanes’ journey included the burden of the league’s longest playoff drought at a decade, Williams leading postgame “Storm Surge” celebrations after home victories and a climb just to make the postseason. For a group that was called a “Bunch of Jerks” by Canadian pundit Don Cherry for the creative celebrations that upset hockey’s old guard, the celebration after McGinn scored 11:05 into the second overtime topped it all.
“You just want to hug each other,” McGinn said. “I don’t think anything goes through your mind. I think you’re just too excited. We’ve battled so long the last couple months it felt like it’s been playoff hockey. For this to go to Game 7 in double overtime, it’s a pretty awesome feeling in this dressing room to come out on top.”
The Hurricanes went 3-0 at home in the first round and showed even more by beating the champions in their house in Game 7. They’ll have to again cede home-ice advantage in the second round against the suffocating Islanders, who allowed the fewest goals in the league this season.
“We’re expecting the same type of battle,” McGinn said. “I think it’s going to be tight checking. They’re very defensive, don’t give you too much time and space. We’ve just got to continue to play our style of game. We’ve got to be a forechecking team and just work them and just keep playing our style.”
The Islanders’ story this season has defied almost everyone’s expectations. They were picked by most experts to finish last in the Metropolitan Division after losing captain and franchise superstar John Tavares to Toronto in free agency last July. New general manager Lou Lamoriello cautiously retooled his roster with veteran free agents that had experienced past success, including Stanley Cup-winning veteran forwards Valtteri Filppula and Tom Kuhnhackl, plus grizzled Leo Komarov, a Lamoriello favorite during his time as the head of Toronto’s front office.
To the fans, those players were initially viewed as fourth-liners, but they performed like anything but during New York’s 103-point regular season and in the first-round vanquishing of Pittsburgh.
“Biggest thing is we play as a team,” Trotz said. “You have to give a little bit of yourself to be part of something greater. I think everybody has given up something of themselves to be part of something great. I’ll say this, if you don’t have character, you won’t be good.”
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)