Rod Brind’Amour, the scar-faced former N.H.L. center who is the first-year coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, was talking the other day about winning and losing — specifically, how he enjoys winning less than he should, and how losing still stinks, although he used another word.
“I don’t know that when I played, I had that much joy,” said Brind’Amour, who scored 452 goals in a 20-year N.H.L. career and was the captain of the Carolina team that won the Stanley Cup in 2006. “I was always chasing something, or always thinking about the next one. Now I get to see these guys, and I’m enjoying it — how they’ve responded, how they’re enjoying the run.”
Despite a new coach and a rebuilt roster, the Hurricanes (46-29-7) won 31 of their final 45 games to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, ending what had been the N.H.L.’s longest playoff drought. This will be their second playoff appearance since 2006.
Carolina’s reward was a first-round series against the defending champion Washington Capitals. The Hurricanes, who lost by 4-3 in overtime on Saturday, trail in the series, 2-0. Game 3 is Monday night in Raleigh, N.C.
Brind’Amour acknowledged that the Capitals (48-26-8) and Alex Ovechkin will be formidable — but not impossible to beat.
[N.H.L. playoffs: first-round schedule and results]
“It doesn’t matter who you are playing,” Brind’Amour said outside the team’s dressing room after its regular-season finale in Philadelphia. “It’s going to be an uphill battle. We know that. But I like the way we’ve come at it all year, met the challenges.”
The Hurricanes are young and inexperienced, especially when compared with Washington. The Hurricanes, with an average age of 26, entered the series with a less than 400 games of playoff experience; the Capitals, average age of 28, had nearly 1,300 games. Ten Carolina players had no playoff experience before last week, including the 18-year-old forward Andrei Svechnikov, who scored the Hurricanes’ goals in a 4-2 loss in Game 1.
No matter what happens, Sebastian Aho, the top-line center from Finland who led the team with 30 goals, said the team was in the right hands with Brind’Amour.
“Even if we wouldn’t have made the playoffs this year, he would have been the right choice,” Aho, 21, said.
Brind’Amour, 48, was a tenacious two-way center: He had five 30-goal seasons, won the Selke Trophy twice as the league’s best defensive forward and got into 27 fights when fighting was popular. He was, and still is, a workout fiend, known as Rod the Bod.
“You see him in the gym, working out every day still,” goalie Curtis McElhinney said. “He’s in phenomenal shape. There is an intensity, but there’s also a calmness, maybe from being a parent or just being around some of the younger guys now. He doesn’t seem to get too fired up too often. It takes a lot to get Roddy upset.”
Brind’Amour, whose sweater number, 17, was retired by the Hurricanes, was traded to Carolina from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000. He joined the Hurricanes’ front office after he retired as a player at age 39 in 2010, then became an assistant a year later.
The Hurricanes were sold to the Dallas billionaire Tom Dundon during the 2017-18 season, with Don Waddell, a veteran N.H.L. executive, being named as the club’s president and general manager in May. Waddell said Brind’Amour’s experience with the franchise was an asset.
“If Rod were coming from another organization, it would have been really tough,” Waddell said, adding: “But he was ready for this challenge. He knew what it would take. He really believed in what he was doing, and what he was doing was the right way.”
Before he took the job, Brind’Amour sought advice from Justin Williams, the Hurricanes’ 37-year-old captain, who had been a teammate of Brind’Amour’s.
Williams played down the importance of the phone call.
“Sometimes, you just need a kick in the pants, say: ‘Go get it. You can do it. Challenge yourself. I believe in you. I think you can do it,’ ” he said. “Life is all about opportunities, seizing opportunities for yourself. He wanted the chance, and he’s done a fabulous job.”
The Hurricanes scuffled for victories in Brind’Amour’s first three months as coach. The low point probably came Dec. 29, when Carolina went 0 for 5 on the power play and were beaten by the Devils rookie Mackenzie Blackwood, 2-0.
It was the Hurricanes’ fourth loss in five games and sank their record to 15-17-5 — 13th in the 16-team Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff berth. Brind’Amour made a soft plea in interviews for his top-line players to score more, but he stuck with his master plan.
“The message was the same as it was before,” said Williams, a three-time Cup winner. “We’d gotten a lot of kicks in the teeth, it felt like. We’d played a lot of good games and had not come up with any points. That was frustrating to keep the same message. But he kept the same message. We certainly didn’t look at the standings for a couple weeks. Play a few games, look at it, play a few more, look at it, see where we ended up.”
They beat the Flyers in their next game to begin a five-game winning streak. From Jan. 1 to the end of the regular season, Carolina had 30 victories and 62 points, more than any N.H.L. team except the Tampa Bay Lightning, which finished with the league’s best record.
Carolina center Jordan Staal, who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Cup in 2009, said the Hurricanes “created a playoff-type atmosphere early.”
“We knew that if we’d slip in a few games here and there, you start sliding down the string, and it’s not easy to make up at the end of the year,” he added. “We’ve been in that situation a long time in Carolina. We knew we’d have to string together some wins. Started playoffs in January, and the boys took it from there.”
The players were also responsible for the zany Storm Surge victory celebrations at home games, for which the Hurricanes became known for this season. The choreographed routines included the limbo, a walk-off home run and even an appearance by Evander Holyfield.
The Storm Surge celebrations are being shelved, at least for now. Brind’Amour said he would be focusing on the things the Hurricanes needed to do to beat Washington, which beat Carolina in all four regular-season games this year.
It does not sound as if he will need to fine-tune his team’s attitude. Waddell said Brind’Amour has convinced the Hurricanes they can win.
“Any coach would love this group,” Brind’Amour said. “You’ve got the leadership. You’ve got the younger guys who are just coming in. I can’t even think of a negative. That’s the thing. That’s hard to do in today’s climate. You can always find a teammate you’re not happy about. That doesn’t happen here. There’s been a buy-in all around. That makes it easier on a first-year coach.”
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