Part II in a three-part retrospective on the
Carolina Hurricanes’ 2018-19 season.
NOTE: Read Part I first if you haven’t done so already.
Where was I? Oh yes, the vastly retooled Carolina Hurricanes began their pre-season with a bang, topping the powerhouse Lightning twice, the Stanley Cup Champion Capitals twice (to be fair, they were probably still drunk), and Western Conference BBQ rival Preds once and to a OT loss; outscoring their opponents 28 to 13!
Many of us longer-suffering fans were cautious because we’d seen decent preseason teams trip on the door step to the regular season, but overall the team actually looked GOOD! Even Scott Darling, who got hammered in the previous season was standing tall in every sense of the word and was going to prove….oops, never mind, he just injured himself.
Well damn, it looked like Caniac Nation was going to bite their collective nails, as the team might end up trusting the crease to Alex Nedeljkovic — a stud in the AHL, but unproven in the NHL — and the man who doesn’t want to buy a vowel, Petr Mrazek.
But hark! From what distant snowy land doth Donny Waddell’s ears and lucky loungewear turtleneck hear the twang of the waiver wire, and plucketh thee veteran Curtis McElhinney from a strapped Toronto Maple Leafs team. Screams from the far north could be heard far and wide as well a sigh of relief in Carolina. Turning to face the regular season, the Hurricanes stepped forward into the new era.
And found the doorstep right where it always was: a low-scoring OT loss to the Islanders of Strong GuyLand; a team anticipated to finish 7th in the Metro, if not dead last in the League. But this was a stumble more than a trip for the Canes, and they found themselves with one of the best records for Octobers in over a decade. The erratic, frantic, chaotic play was producing goals and freshman head coach Rod Brind’amour told the media that this wasn’t exactly the game plan, but that he couldn’t argue with results.
There was a feeling of fun in the air where this team flirted with divisional 1st place standings, and with it came celebrations. Celebrations that no one had seen before. Starting with a race to the far wall, then another win and a race to the other wall. Then kayak paddling? The media took notice of these wacky cellys, dubbing them the Storm Surge; some laughing and praised them, other tired, crotchety, combless old codgers condemning them. But it was fun!
New owner Tom Dundon quickly redirected any credit towards new captain Justin Williams, a man who also misplaces his comb from time to time.
But as foretold, winter was coming, teams grew wise to the Hurricanes chaotic game and the losses begin to accumulate like the leaves on the ground here in the City of Oaks. December hit like a brick and the team found themselves on long road trips with little scoring. In goal, Scott Darling returned, and returned to do Scott Darling things. Mrazek found himself with an injury shortly afterwards, which kept McElhinney from hitting the waiver wire again. Around Christmas time, the team’s hot start had eroded and left them only two points from the bottom in the league. Tom Dundon, never one to leave a dollar on the table over a wacky promotion, scheduled for his team to wear Hartford Whalers jerseys for the first time in over two decades, prompting an out pouring of nostalgic love from everywhere BUT Hartford.
As green as St Paddy’s Day but with a lot less vomited beer, Carolina Whaler-Canes took the ice against the historically abusive, older New England brother Boston Bruins. Propelled by a RARE sell-out crowd at PNC Arena, the Whaler-Canes produced an exciting come-from-behind win. While the team’s luck started to turn on the very last night of the calendar year, it could be argued that the turning point of the season came just a little before Christmas with this game.
Just before a rockin’ New Years Eve, the Hurricanes won a game. Then a few days later they won another. Then another. Then ANOTHER! And the Surge was on; literally and figuratively. From the flip of the calendar, the Hurricanes put together one of the best records in the NHL alongside the Blues.
Granted, we’d seen this movie before; Canes start the season burying themselves, coming alive in January, only to fall short in March, narrowly missing the playoffs and screwing themselves in the draft. Not that they could draft worth a damn in the first round; the big club featured only two players they had even drafted as first round picks, and one of them was a 6/7 defenseman who is still waiting to score an NHL goal.
But this group was tenacious, pesky, relentless, and found ways to dig deep in order to win. Long has Scott Darling been put out to pasture in the AHL, and the M&M tandem (“Melts in your mouth, not in goal crease”) put up at least league-average numbers, something analytics nerds had been crying about for years. Their Storm Surge celebrations had to get creative and crazy, and were really catching the media attention and ire of Sour Grapes Don Cherry.
Then in the middle of all of this came the most lopsided trade of the season, when Don Waddell somehow smuggled Nino Niederreiter out of Minnesota and left the much maligned, tuber-loving Victor Rask in his place — and no one seemed to notice until he was across the border! El Nino scored at nearly a point per game the rest of the season giving a huge offensive push down the stretch.
As “winter” turned to spring and the “snowfall” turned to pollen, teams rivaling for a playoff spot began to fall away. But this time, the Canes were determined, and while they had little rest and a plethora of Cup-contending teams to play, they held on through March. Attendance at the arena grew like the Grinch’s heart, thanks to a winning record, a rallying cry of “Bunch of Jerks!”…and the fact that Duke and UNC bounced out early in the NCAA tournament. But mostly the other stuff!
The ‘Canes clinched a playoff spot in their second-to-last game of the season, but had done what more than half the other teams in the NHL had done every season: play meaningful games later in April. And who would be their first dance partner in a decade? The defending Cup Champions, who had won all four of their matchups in the regular season, including two in the previous week: the Washington Capitals, DAMMIT!
To be continued in Part III. ■
Jim Howard is a Carolina Hurricanes fan and reformed baseball card collector who is trying to keep the hockey collection from becoming overwhelming. And while he wishes he could give Crosby the business with his mitt, he is in fact NOT the goalie for the Red Wings.