RALEIGH, NC — Jordan Staal reached out for Jack Drury’s pass and fired the puck towards him, closing in on Akira Schmid for a breakaway. He dragged the puck to his forehand, then fired it to his backhand, freezing Schmid and placing the puck around the New Jersey goaltender’s left toe and into the net.
Plenty of captains in the league — Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, to name a few — regularly score game-winning goals, but the depreciating Staal often jokes about his less than stellar hands.
“I told Jack he put it where I needed it, which was way behind me, just so I didn’t have to think so much,” Staal joked.
Staal’s goal, Carolina’s fourth in a 6-1 victory over the Devils on Friday night, was just the icing on the cake that has been the Hurricanes’ first two games of the second-round series. against New Jersey.
As the Metropolitan Division rivals the Hurricanes made costly moves at the trade deadline, Carolina worked around the edges, confident that the additions of defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and Jesse Puljujarvi were enough to give them a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in franchise history.
Then Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 23 goals in 64 games, was lost for the season to a knee injury. The Hurricanes staggered into the playoffs, going just 12-9-1 after losing their star winger.
Carolina retained the top spot in the division, earning a date with the rugged Islanders in the first round. The Hurricanes eliminated them in six games, but not before Teuvo Teravainen broke his hand in Game 2 and Drury was eliminated from Game 4 and the rest of the series by a penalty hit from New York defenseman Ryan Pulock.
Beating the Islanders was one thing, but trying to take on the high-octane Devils — the team that landed the only marquee player Carolina pursued before the trade deadline, Timo Meier — was another. .
Still, the Hurricanes are here, up 2-0 over New Jersey after beating the Devils a combined 11-2 heading into Game 3 on Sunday afternoon in Newark, NJ.
To understand how the Hurricanes, exhausted by injuries and sidelined by pundits, once again became legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup, you have to start with Staal.
Not the badly committed Staal who showed up in Game 2, but rather the hard-working captain who changes from game to game as much as coach Rod Brind’Amour’s intense training schedule.
“Maybe he doesn’t show up on the score sheet all the time, maybe he doesn’t look any different than usual,” Brind’Amour said of the smothering performance. de Staal in Game 1 against Devils superstar Jack Hughes. “It’s kind of his way of playing. He’s a tough guy to play against, and he’s obviously the leader of our group because of the way he does it.
Raleigh-area residents have heard of “The Carolina Way,” which was University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith’s coaching philosophy. It emphasizes process over results, emphasizing respect for teammates and opponents, sportsmanship and selflessness.
Brind’Amour is an upstate guy from North Carolina — his wife, Amy, is the daughter of Eddie Biedenbach, a former Wolfpack player and longtime assistant coach at the school — but his plan for success of the team is more like that of the UNC legend.
No NHL team has a more defined identity than the Hurricanes. The team’s system relies on relentless forechecks, active defenders and a five-man defensive engagement that generates constant pressure and limits chances of countering.
It has also, at times, drowned out their offense. The Hurricanes rely on chaos to score goals, throwing shots from anywhere and everywhere to create favorable rebounds and second chances. Carolina exited last year’s playoffs after scoring just 13 goals in a seven-game series against Rangers, leading to calls – even from the coach – to add some more finishing to alignment.
That came in the form of Max Pacioretty, the six-time 30-goal scorer who fell victim to a Vegas pick, in favor of Carolina. Pacioretty, unfortunately, has only played five games this season, tearing his Achilles tendon in off-season training and re-injuring himself in mid-January.
The Hurricanes didn’t panic, still believing their system — which has seen 14 different Hurricanes score at least 25 points, including a dozen with double-digit goals — could succeed even without another top scorer.
It also prevented them from wasting assets on a short-term fix at the trade deadline. Meier made sense — he was under the team’s control until next season and young enough to consider extending given Carolina’s desire for cap flexibility and consideration for aging curves.
But then came the loss of Svechnikov, followed by Teravainen. Even the most optimistic observers undeniably doubted the Hurricanes’ ability to make it through two months of the playoffs and find themselves at the top.
The same things, however, that sometimes lead to offensive dry spells are also what allow Carolina to plug holes and keep going.
The biggest task for Brind’Amour is to get every player’s buy-in. It’s Staal who sets the tone, a model of consistency if not the silkiest of players – his Game 2 goal aside.
Second-year winger Seth Jarvis saw his numbers plummet in his second campaign, but what was gained was far more valuable – a commitment to play both ways, a desire to be on the team and strict adherence to the Hurricanes system.
We can already see signs of that in Drury, whose successful battle on the board on a power play early in the second period led to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s goal that opened the scoring on Friday.
They are undrafted defenseman Jalen Chatfield and forward Stefan Noesen, both of whom found a home in Carolina when other teams cast them aside. Veterans like Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan checked their egos at the door, taking on lesser roles to be part of something bigger.
This is the system – The (Other) Carolina Way.
“That’s been our style all year,” Staal said after Friday’s win. “Really, first and foremost, don’t give them anything and then be tenacious on the puck and create turnovers and send it to the net.”
The wash, rinse, repeat style creates two expectations.
For one thing, Hurricanes players know what to expect, no matter which teammates are on the ice. This makes inserting new players into the roster easier than in other teams. Second, their opponents know they’re going to have a long night — or, in the Devils’ case, a long streak.
“If you stick with it long enough,” Staal said, “the bearings start to happen and those little parts that look pretty are really just the result of their wear and tear.”
The Devils looked like a well-worn team on Friday, from Nico Hischier getting off the ice several times and Jack Hughes aimlessly searching for the offense to Dougie Hamilton running away from the moment and coach Lindy Ruff juggling his ineffective goaltenders.
Carolina is like a tirelessly beating juggernaut, minute after minute, shift after shift, and Staal is the embodiment – in form and action – of it all.
For a moment in Game 2, however, Staal was able to show his skill.
“He looked like Jarvy doing that move,” Drury said, comparing the captain’s goal to the flashy Jarvis. “It felt more like 5 (feet) 10 than 6-4.”
When it all comes together for the Hurricanes like it does now, everyone – even the meat-and-potato Staal – has a blast. And the victories keep piling up.
(Photo by Jesperi Kotkaniemi: James Guillory/USA Today)