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Jordan Staal, right, celebrates with Nino Niederreiter, center, and Trevor van Reimsdyk after scoring one of the Carolina Hurricanes’ goals in a 4-1 win at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. “It’s been fun being involved with these kinds of games,” Staal said.
This is supposed to be fun.
So why doesn’t anyone around the Carolina Hurricanes seem to be enjoying the rare pleasure of a playoff chase, of being relevant in April, of playing games that matter instead of counting the days until the misery is finally over?
“Nope, not yet,” Hurricanes captain Justin Williams said. “It’s business. We’re here for a reason.”
The coaches and players are too focused on the next game to take a breath, which is fine: It’s what got them here. But there’s precious little pleasure taken from controlling their own destiny with two games to go for the first time in eight years.
“Mmmmm, nah,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour demurred, then added, later: “We’re not in a position to really take much enjoyment out of anything. It’s business as usual. We expect to win. We have to win. You just keep moving on.”
And fans, having heard the cries of wolf too many times, having suffered through that final-day defeat in 2011, as long ago as it was, see failure lurking around every corner, too paranoid to enjoy it. Ten times bitten, twice shy. Who can blame them? Let down so many times, hopes dashed again and again, lost in the hockey wilderness and all but forgotten.
Cheer up, everyone. This is the good part. Real games in April, that rare treat, shouldn’t provoke anxiety because of what might happen; they should provoke the joy of what could happen. And with everything this particular team has done to apply the defibrillator paddles of fun to a market that’s been in suspended animation for a decade, hockey in the Triangle has gotten a much-needed jolt whether this season ends in tears of triumph or tears of despair.
Whether The Drought ends or not, it’s just nice to have a team worth crying about for a change. There should be as much pleasure as pressure in being here.
Jordan Staal, yet to appear in a playoff game with the Hurricanes, was willing to at least admit that much: “It’s been fun being involved with these kinds of games,” he said.
That will be scant consolation if the Hurricanes do muck this up, which despite Tuesday night’s stirring road victory over the farther-up-the-standings Toronto Maple Leafs still remains a distinct possibility. There is zero margin for error, even if the Montreal Canadiens have two playoff-bound teams left on the schedule and the Hurricanes do not, even if multiple Western Conference teams with fewer points have already clinched playoff spots, especially with defenseman Calvin de Haan “not coming back anytime soon,” Brind’Amour said Wednesday.
But let’s not overlook how far this team has come since October, and while some of the names may change this offseason no matter what happens, the mentality should not. This franchise needed an attitude adjustment to root out the losing culture, and it’s gone. That much, at least, has been accomplished.
And if the Hurricanes do finish the job over the next three days?
No team will ever have been playing with house money like the Hurricanes would be, whether they play the defending champs or the best team in the league. At that point, bring on the Washington Capitals and bring on the Tampa Bay Lightning – two teams with everything to lose, while the Hurricanes would have nothing.
But they have to get there first, if all goes their way as soon as Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena; if not, right down to game No. 82 Saturday at the Philadelphia Flyers.
Two games, tense and overloaded with implications, to validate not merely an entire season but end a decade of irrelevance. It has been a long time since games this team played mattered this much. It’s OK to enjoy that. For everyone to enjoy that.