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The Carolina Hurricanes have waited almost 10 years to play in the second round of the NHL playoffs. It only seems like the New York Islanders have been waiting that long to play again, period, as they will be 10 days removed from their last game.
One of the numerous unexpected conference semifinals will finally begin Friday night, when the Islanders host the Hurricanes in a battle of Metropolitan Division rivals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The Hurricanes, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, advanced to the conference semifinals by overcoming a pair of two-goal deficits to edge the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, 4-3, in double overtime Wednesday night. The win capped a series of comebacks by Carolina, which trailed the series two games to none and fell behind three games to two with a 6-0 loss in Game 5 on Saturday night.
“I don’t know what else to say about this group,” Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour said following the Hurricanes’ first series victory since the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals. “They just don’t quit. We’ve got great leadership . In overtime, you saw it come through. Just really proud of this group. This is a special group, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
The Islanders have been off since Apr. 16, when they completed a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 3-1 win. It was just the second postseason series win since 1994 for New York, which advanced to the second round in 2016.
The Islanders held five practices during their long break, but head coach Barry Trotz sensed something different Thursday morning.
“You could tell that there’s guys that are turning the switch on a little bit — not that they’ve turned it off, they’ve done a really good job, but I think the urgency is definitely there,” said Trotz, who coached the Capitals to the Stanley Cup title last season before joining the Islanders last June. “They’re a little more business-like, if you will. They’ve been business-like right through, but this is just a little different level.”
The nine-day break for the Islanders is the longest playoff respite for an NHL team since the Chicago Blackhawks had nine days off heading into the Western Conference finals in 2015. The Blackhawks beat the Anaheim Ducks in seven games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“Just looking forward to playing anybody, and it happens to be Carolina,” Trotz said. “As I told the players: The league’s going to let us play. We’ve got uniforms and everything. Let’s go.”
The series will pit two of the many Cinderella squads left in a tournament that’s gone haywire. For the first time in the history of the four major North American pro sports leagues, every regular-season division champion was eliminated in the first round. The Islanders (103 points) are one of three 100-point teams left along with the Boston Bruins (107 points) and San Jose Sharks (101 points).
In addition, the Islanders and Hurricanes are two of the four teams remaining that did not reach the playoffs last season. The St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, who face each other in a Western Conference semifinal, also did not qualify for the postseason last year.
But despite their underdog status, there’s nothing fluky about the Islanders and Hurricanes reaching the conference semifinals. New York was a robust 26-14-3 after Jan. 1, while Carolina was an even more impressive 30-12-2.
“I just think they’ve been a really good team all year,” Trotz said of the Hurricanes. “Especially, I would say, in the second half. They were grinding it out every night and playing the same way and playing for each other and doing all those things. It doesn’t surprise me. They weren’t going away easy all year, and they weren’t going away (Wednesday) night.”
In the regular season, just four points separated the Islanders, who finished second in the Metropolitan Division, and the Hurricanes, who finished fourth and and earned the Eastern Conference’s first wild card.
The Islanders were 3-1-0 against the Hurricanes, who finished 1-2-1 in a season series that ended Jan. 8. New York won the first three games — a 2-1 overtime decision in the season opener at Carolina on Oct. 4, another 2-1 victory in Carolina on Oct. 28 and a 4-1 win at Barclays Center on Nov. 24 — before falling, 4-3, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., in January.
The Islanders had a plus-32 goal differential on the season, while the Hurricanes finished at plus-22. New York allowed the fewest goals in the league (196) and finished 21st in goals scored (228). Carolina was 16th in goals scored (245) and tied for sixth in goals allowed (223).
Friday’s game will mark the first for the Islanders at Barclays Center since Feb. 16, when they beat the Edmonton Oilers, 5-2. New York played its final 12 regular-season games and both first-round games at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. All remaining postseason home games will be played in Brooklyn.