Captain then, coach now: Brind’Amour coaxes Hurricanes back to conference finals

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Hurricanes battle Islanders in game 4

Check out photos from game 4 of the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup playoff series against the NY Islanders Friday night, May 3, 2019.

Check out photos from game 4 of the Carolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup playoff series against the NY Islanders Friday night, May 3, 2019.

Perhaps because he so assiduously downplays the role coaches play during the playoffs, deflecting credit to everyone from the video guys to the trainers, Rod Brind’Amour hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves during these playoffs.

As a motivator, certainly he has. His ability to coax this uncommon resiliency out of this group has never been questioned, nor his able management of incredible fatigue as the injuries mounted and the first round wore on and the second round began without a break.

But as a tactician? Rod the Bod has a brain on him, too, and his first-intermission tinkering Friday broke open a series that had been decided by the finest of margins and led to a comfortable final act of a second-round sweep of the New York Islanders.

The Hurricanes will travel north to face the Boston Bruins or host the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference finals, but there are at least two games left in that series, which will give the Hurricanes some much-needed rest and recuperation after the first four-game sweep in franchise history – a 5-2 win in front of the largest crowd, 19,495, in franchise history.

They’ll need the time, too, after playing their most physically engaged game of the playoffs, a dimension the Hurricanes will have to bring again no matter which team emerges from the other, brutal series. But it’s a luxury they suddenly have as they prepare for a fourth straight trip to the conference finals, now 16-6 in the second round in North Carolina over a span of, uh, 17 years.

It’s time to recognize Brind’Amour’s role in that, and how it goes beyond postgame speechifying. His defensive maneuvering late in the first-round series against the Washington Capitals – primarily to get Dougie Hamilton away from Alex Ovechkin – went largely unnoticed, as did the way he manipulated matchups on the road late in Game 7 to maximize Jordan Staal’s impact, two steps ahead of Todd Reirden. Only one of them looked like a rookie NHL coach.

Friday, with the Hurricanes deadlocked with the New York Islanders through one very rough-and-tumble period, Brind’Amour went against his own typical form and shuffled his lines looking for a spark. It’s not his style, which is to hold things together as long as possible. He didn’t make a single goalie change until Petr Mrazek went down in Game 2 of this series, the 91st of the season.

But Brind’Amour ignored his more typical impulses Friday and moved some things around, elevating the surging Andrei Svechnikov and putting the two Finns back together, and was rewarded with two long, puck-dominating shifts to start the period – the first by Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal and Justin Williams, the second by Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

At the end of that second shift, Aho stole the puck behind the net and fed Warren Foegele coming right off the bench, who tapped it to a wide-open Teravainen at the far post, left alone by a baffled and beleaguered Islanders defense. That was the first of two goals in 66 seconds and three in less than seven minutes as the Hurricanes broke open this series for the first time, cruising to a surprisingly comfortable win in a series that had been anything but to that point.

It wasn’t the first time in the playoffs that Brind’Amour had a sense of what his team needed when it needed it, and while he’s gotten proper acclaim for the off-the-ice component of that, his command of the Xs and Os has not been adequately recognized, especially in a series where the first three games could have gone either way.

As a player or coach, Brind’Amour’s past four playoff appearances with the Hurricanes have all gotten at least this far. There’s a Brind’Amour component to that, whether as a two-way center or captain or coach. The last handshake line on this ice was followed by Brind’Amour lifting the Stanley Cup.

He wasn’t a Jack Adams finalist after dragging this team from the depths of the Eastern Conference to the playoffs, and there was certainly a learning curve along the way, but it turns out in the postseason Brind’Amour as a coach is the same way he was as a player: hard to beat.