After all the egos that were bruised and blood that was spilled in a series that swung back and forth so many times it could induce spiritual whiplash, there were conflicting emotions battling among the Carolina Hurricanes once the handshakes were complete.
Foremost among them was relief, having survived and advanced, even if it went down to the final 20 seconds of Game 7 on Saturday, the Boston Bruins refusing to go quietly right to the bitter end.
There was joy, of course, as there always is when a playoff series ends the right way, especially ending the season of a team that had twice ended their own, and at home no less.
But there was also a sense of accomplishment, not only for winning, not only for exorcising those Boston demons, but for living up to the expectations this team placed upon itself. The Hurricanes have reached a point where winning a single playoff series is no longer cause for rampant celebration. It is merely a milestone on what they intend to be a much longer path.
So Saturday’s 3-2 win, a sixth straight in Game 7s — the second against the Bruins in that run — felt not like a conclusion but merely a beginning, the start of something far bigger and more important.
The Bruins just happened to be in their way.
“This time around, it felt like it was our time,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Our guys matured. I think they felt that too.”
To be perfectly frank about it, the next series is going to feel the same way, whether it’s against the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers, pending Sunday’s Game 7 between those teams. The Hurricanes will have home ice, again. They will be favored to win, again. They will embrace the expectations that come with that, again.
That is a position the Hurricanes earned, having crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time since 2006. And if they had managed to screw this up against the Bruins — and there would have been no other way to describe it — it would have been catastrophic, a seismic disruption in this franchise’s ascendancy.
The circumstances have changed since 2019 and 2020, with the Hurricanes on their way up and the Bruins on the way down, and so there’s less glee in flipping that script than there is satisfaction in having cleared the first hurdle in what the Hurricanes hope is a long race.
They rebounded from an uncharacteristically slapdash Game 6 with a tightly played, efficient performance when it mattered, denying the Bruins a power play until Brendan Smith flipped a puck over the glass in the third period. In a series full of home blowouts, the Hurricanes won the closest game of all when it mattered most.
“There was a lot of momentum changes and stuff that you kind of have to deal with mentally,” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said. “Our group was getting better at it as we went. Tonight was one where we stayed on track like we wanted to. Game 6 it didn’t happen, but tonight we stayed on track and played our game for the whole game.”
It was fitting that the Hurricanes’ depth won out in the end — in goal, where Antti Raanta has been stellar with Frederik Andersen still absent, and at forward, with Max Domi earning promotion off the fourth line with his Game 5 performance and becoming an unlikely Game 7 hero, and on defense, where all three pairings did yeoman work against the top-heavy Bruins, led as always by the subtle excellence of Jaccob Slavin.
Raanta’s crease-crossing save on Taylor Hall kept the game scoreless long enough for Domi to set up Teuvo Teravainen for the opening goal, and Domi, of all people, scored twice more to give the Hurricanes a cushion they would end up needing when the Bruins scored and nearly scored again with their net empty in the final minute.
Brind’Amour has never lost a Game 7 with the Hurricanes, as a captain or coach, but it’s also his belief that the first round can be the toughest, the most emotional, with every game of the utmost intensity.
That inevitably wanes in succeeding rounds as time wears on, as the games start to blend into each other, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that every team in the first round enters with the same aspirations.
Everyone starts out a Stanley Cup contender, until they’re not. The Bruins no longer are. The Hurricanes will continue along the same path they were already on.
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