Feels like it’s been a lot longer than two years.
It’s been two years and a day, to be exact, since the last time the Carolina Hurricanes got to play a playoff game in front of their own fans, and a little longer than that since they won one.
It feels like it’s been a lifetime. In some ways, it almost has been. The last few minutes, as the Hurricanes turned the first two-goal lead of the entire playoffs so far into the first three-goal lead, felt like a celebration of something bigger than a playoff win. It’s not quite normal yet, not with a good chunk of the 300 level still held empty, not with COVID not yet fully conquered, but it’s a lot closer to it than anything we’ve seen in the past year and change.
There’s a finish line to this pandemic out there somewhere, one getting closer with every shot into every arm — you could even get vaccinated inside the arena Monday, if you weren’t already ... and if not, why not? — but everyone was ready to take a victory lap Monday night.
The Hurricanes pulled away in the third period for a resounding 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators. The fans yelled things and sat shoulder to shoulder and did the wave for the first time in months. Gov. Roy Cooper, who lifted the capacity restrictions Friday at the conclusion of months of careful guidance, was the ceremonial siren sounder before the game. Cooper is, he announced via Twitter later Monday night, 3-0 on the siren in the playoffs.
It was just one game, just 12,000 fans in a building accustomed to holding many more, but it all felt and looked and sounded like so much more.
It felt like the end of something, and the beginning of something else.
“That’s how it should feel,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said afterward. “We’ve been missing that for so long. I’m happy our fans got to see us play tonight and play well. That was important.”
This was indeed a virtuoso playoff performance by a team that is increasingly experienced in the postseason. That showed as the Predators hung tough through two periods, throwing hits and keeping things tight despite being outplayed overall, getting save after save from Juuse Saros and getting a couple goals past rookie starter Alex Nedeljkovic.
It was one of those moments when a team’s constitution is put to the test, its patience. Brind’Amour flipped the lines back to the way they’ve been most of the season at the first intermission, and that was that. A solid second period led to a dominant third. The Hurricanes’ game never wavered. They scored five goals despite going 0-for-4 on the power play.
There was a lot to like, from Jaccob Slavin’s performance coming off the shelf, to Brett Pesce’s first playoff game in two years; from Martin Necas taking a hit to make a play early and flying around the ice late, to Jordan Staal’s two goals.
The first of those will show up in the tribute video when he retires; Pesce sprung him loose at the blue line and Staal shrugged off two Nashville defenders on his way to the net before flipping a tight-angle shot over Saros’ right shoulder.
“I lost the puck a little bit going between those two guys,” Staal said. “I put it on net and just kind of when it goes well is usually when you’re not really thinking.”
The Predators asked physical questions and the Hurricanes had answers; they may have more skill than their opponents, but they also made it clear they won’t be bullied out of this series. And there are already villains for both sides: Steven Lorentz got under the Predators’ skin in his playoff debut, and Erik Haula is clearly unpopular with both his former Hurricanes teammates and Carolina fans, who booed him throughout an intermission interview conducted in a corner of the arena bowl.
This series is far from over, but the good feelings and better vibes far exceeded those usually associated with a home Game 1 victory. The Hurricanes gave their fans something to celebrate, and the fans were there to celebrate with them. If such a thing was ever taken for granted, there was no chance of that Monday night.
There was a collective appreciation of the moment and everything it took to make it happen, all of the sacrifices made to get here from where we were a year ago. After a year spent in quiet, constant mourning for everyone and everything lost, here we finally have one very small thing gained.
And also a playoff win, to be savored in any circumstances, in any year, at any time.