Hurricanes grow up, even series up

It wasn’t so much that the Carolina Hurricanes looked unprepared for the playoffs, or unready, or overawed. Only by comparison to the defending Stanley Cup champions did they seem to shrink in the face of the Washington Capitals’ experience and savvy and accumulated wisdom.

No longer. The baptism is complete. This series is on even terms in every way, including how comfortable each team is with the fury and physicality. If the champions thought this would be easy, they have a fight on their hands now.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen (86) scores the game winning goal on Washington Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the second period in game four of the first round Stanley Cup series game on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The Hurricanes defeated the Capitals 2-1. Robert Willett

Four playoff games is an eternity. Buoyed by two electric home crowds, galvanized by the loss of one of their most popular players, able to forecheck the Capitals into submission one game and defend on their heels the next, the Hurricanes are no longer a bunch of playoff rookies. And this series is going six games. At least.

After dominating the Capitals on Monday, the Hurricanes had to fend them off in Thursday’s 2-1 win, playing more in their own end but only allowing the one Alex Ovechkin goal on the power play, and only because Brock McGinn had to give up his stick to Trevor van Riemsdyk and found himself defenseless in the face of Ovechkin’s favorite shot from his favorite spot.

Sudden postseason superstar Warren Foegele scored on the game’s first shift and Teuvo Teravainen announced his arrival in the series at the end of the second period, never a more timely goal since the Hurricanes had given an arena-record crowd of 19,202 very little to applaud until that point. Credit on the goal goes also to Nino Niederreiter for the pinpoint pass to Teravainen cutting down the slot and Sebastian Aho for a difficult entry into the zone.

The Hurricanes have been waiting, desperately, for that line to do something, anything. It was an entirely appropriate moment to exert an impact, the Capitals having had a decided edge to that point.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Warren Foegele (13) scores on Washington Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby (70) during the first period in game four of the first round Stanley Cup series game on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

Perhaps it just took this long, 220 minutes and 40 seconds, for that group to feel comfortable in these circumstances. And the Hurricanes certainly need more production from Jordan Staal and Justin Williams, even if Staal’s two-way game continues to be outstanding.

But the goal changed the game, tilting the ice back the Hurricanes’ way in the third period, even as the Hurricanes had to play yet another game short-handed, this time when Jordan Martinook exited with a right leg injury, after losing Andrei Svechnikov and Micheal Ferland.

And praise, again, for Petr Mrazek, who actually faced a significant workload in this one but was no less up to the challenge. It’s hard to recall now that the Hurricanes went into the season buying the goalie equivalent of scratch-off tickets only to end up with a goalie who not only carried them down the stretch but has carried them in the postseason, right down to a late Capitals power play.

“Petr, Petr, Petr,” Brett Pesce chanted, imitating the crowd as he made his way past Mrazek’s locker to the weight room.

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek (34) is surrounded by his teammate as they celebrate their 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals in game four of the first round Stanley Cup series game on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

The tone and tenor of this series changed completely in the two games in Raleigh, which of course isn’t uncommon, but an overtime goal like the one Brooks Orpik scored in Game 2 can all but end a series before it gets started, turning a chance to steal a win on the road into a backbreaking loss. The Hurricanes shook that off, produced one of their best performances of the season on Monday and played with a poise that belied their experience on Thursday.

“It wasn’t our best game but for me it was our best, just playing in an uncomfortable game, not pretty, just hanging in there,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “That’s really what it felt like we were doing.”

So the Hurricanes will be back here on Monday, either with the opportunity to clinch or stave off elimination. There will be another home game at PNC, at least one. They have earned that much.

Whatever they needed to learn, they have learned. They are in their moment now, every bit as much as the Capitals. It’s anyone’s series.

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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.