RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It wasn’t long after the Carolina Hurricanes had closed out a second playoff opponent when defenseman Brent Burns began heaping praise on the team’s forwards for making it easy for the defensemen to jump into the offense.
One of those forwards, Jesper Fast, sat to his right and couldn’t hold back.
“Well,” Fast said, “you make it pretty easy for us as well.”
The Hurricanes weren’t supposed to be able to do this: advancing in the playoffs after a series of injuries hit their forward group to sideline some of their most naturally talented goal-scorers. Yet the collective approach has worked so well that the Hurricanes are finding the net more frequently than they did in the regular season despite being down in bodies — and now has them in the Eastern Conference Final.
“It’s really a five-man group,” Burns said after Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win in Game 5 to eliminate the New Jersey Devils. “We talk about that. On the nights things are going well for them, it’s because we’re doing certain things. And for our nights when they’re going well, it’s because they’re doing certain things.
“We try to be together, we try to stay close and support each other out there. It’s been good.”
The clinching win featured Fast scoring the overtime winner on a deflection after Burns and fellow defenseman Jaccob Slavin scored the two regulation goals. That capped a series in which Carolina had a dozen different players find the net — including three times each from forwards Fast, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas and Jordan Martinook — while top star Sebastian Aho scored just once.
Carolina scored 24 goals in the five games against New Jersey, good for a 4.8 per-game average. And going back to a six-game first-round grind against the New York Islanders, Carolina’s average scoring is up from 3.20 goals per game in the regular season to 3.64 in the playoffs.
That has all come despite barely having trade acquisition Max Pacioretty on the ice before he suffered another Achilles tear, as well as losing physical top-line forward Andrei Svechnikov to a season-ending knee injury in March. Then there was the loss of another top-liner in Teuvo Teravainen to a broken left hand in Game 2 of the Islanders series, which has left him to slowly make his way back to skating recently with a lengthy absence still expected.
Yet the style of play remains, from the aggressive forecheck to win puck battles to maintaining possession to keep the pressure on in the offensive zone and generate chances.
“I don’t know how many teams, you miss a whole top line out would be able to chug along the way we are,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “But it says a lot that these other guys are now getting some credit. If you don’t have them, you have no chance.”
Brind’Amour has plenty of examples to point at around his locker room. Fast, who moved back onto the power play ahead of Game 4, shook off a blown open-net putaway in Thursday’s first period to deflect Kotkaniemi’s shot past Akira Schmid with the man advantage for his second OT winner of the postseason. There’s Martinook, who has been on an out-of-nowhere heater and assisted on Slavin’s Game 5 goal to give him 10 points in the series after managing just 11 in his first 41 career playoff games.
And the Hurricanes had three series games in which two defensemen scored. That came after a regular season in which Carolina became the first league team since 1992-93 to have multiple defensemen score 18-plus goals.
“We just keep doing what we’re doing,” Slavin said. “We like to get pucks to the net as part of our system. So we’ll continue to do that. … We know we have to take care of our end first. If you’re playing good defense, you’re going to have more opportunities in the offensive zone.”
The Hurricanes’ clinching win made them the first team to reach the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They await the winner of the Florida-Toronto series, with the Panthers leading that one 3-1 entering Friday’s Game 5, and have home-ice advantage through the rest of the playoffs with Boston’s first-round exit following a record-setting regular season.
“I’ve said many times: We’ve had some tough losses this year, lost some guys,” Kotkaniemi said. “But I think we still have a great group here in this room. And we’re believing in that.”
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