Returning home, Hurricanes’ challenge is internal as much as external

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Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour watches the first period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, May 12, 2019 at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour watches the first period of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, May 12, 2019 at TD Garden in Boston, Mass.

The grind caught up with the Carolina Hurricanes, finally, inevitably, and while that doesn’t spell doom for them in these Eastern Conference finals, it does mean they’re fighting two opponents the rest of the way, however long that is.

Because the Hurricanes’ playoff run hasn’t lasted a month, since Game 1 of the first-round series against the Washington Capitals. It has lasted more than four months, since the calendar ticked to January and, coincidentally, the Hurricanes started winning.

That was when everything came together and they started playing the kind of hockey that wins in March and April and May, and they had to do it then and couldn’t wait until now because they were 10 points out of a playoff spot and had no choice. They went 30-12-2 the rest of the way and never really wavered.

When faced with adversity in the first round, they rallied. When given an opponent of roughly equal ability in the second round, they turned fine margins into big wins. And now they face a new challenge, and not only a powerful Boston Bruins team that already has won two games on the road heading into Tuesday night’s Game 3 at PNC Arena. For the first time in months, the Hurricanes themselves pose a challenge.

It wasn’t the time off between series that got the Hurricanes; they played the way they were supposed to play in the second period of Game 1. Whatever rust there was had flaked away by then. There was something about the soft goal Petr Mrazek allowed to start Game 2 that broke them, at least for that night.

In that moment, they suddenly felt four months of accumulated stress. For the first time in the playoffs, for the first time in months, they let up.

“That might have been the first time where – I don’t want to say we gave up when we were down a few, but we kind of felt the sense of energy change,” Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce said. “That’s not our group and we know that. We’re going to learn from that.”

They have battled injuries throughout, but were as healthy in that game as they were going to get, and were even healthier Tuesday with the availability of Saku Maenalanen. It’s not a physical thing. It’s entirely mental. And as much as being at home will help, the impetus has to come from within.

That will remain the challenge for however long the Hurricanes keep playing, whether they extend the series with a win or two in Raleigh and whether they find a way out of another 2-0 hole into the Stanley Cup finals. The meter continues to run, and there’s only so much even a group this young and oblivious has to offer. They have been running for months on adrenaline, and for the first time Sunday, it ran out.

“Refresh the batteries,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

It was a strange scene, a team so resilient showing no resistance. But it was, as always in the playoffs, only one game. If the Hurricanes can rally at home, riding the wave of their crowd back to their peak, they still have a chance to upend the Bruins. It’s all still out there, no matter what happens Tuesday, although the odds become historically low and the task exponentially more difficult with a loss.

In the first two games, the Bruins were the only opponent, a formidable one to be sure. Now, with the series shifted home, the Hurricanes’ biggest foe may lie within, the battle to recapture the magic that got them this far.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.