The Carolina Hurricanes conducted elaborate postgame celebrations all season but gave their fans the biggest reason to cheer on Thursday, two days before the conclusion of the regular season. Carolina clinched a playoff berth for the first time in 10 years, snapping the NHL's longest postseason drought.
The Washington Capitals helped the Hurricanes by defeating the Montreal Canadiens 2-1. The Hurricanes also won on Thursday night, defeating the New Jersey Devils 3-1. The Columbus Blue Jackets and Canadiens will battle for the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot over the next two days.
"It's exciting, everyone can see all the emotion out of the group and in here right now, there's still a bit of a vibe,'' said Justin Faulk, who scored the go-ahead goal against the Devils in the second period.
"It's great, and we're not happy yet, right?'' he added, as teammates whooped and clapped in the background. "We're excited, we're obviously happy, but we're not done, and that's not enough just to get into the playoffs, and we know that, and that's been our mindset the whole year.''
Carolina has been injected by new energy this season. In his first year as the majority owner, Tom Dundon has been intimately involved in day-to-day operations. Rookie head coach Rod Brind'Amour, a former Canes captain and 20-year NHL veteran, guided the team to at least a 14-point improvement from last season (Carolina still has one game remaining).
The Canes boasted one of the league's stingiest defenses thanks to a surplus of capable blueliners. Carolina also benefited from surprise goaltending performances from Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney.
Mrazek signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal in free agency and was due to be the Canes' primary backup this season to Scott Darling. McElhinney was picked up on waivers. Darling faltered early, took a leave of absence, and eventually spent most of the season in the minors. In his absence, Mrazek and McElhinney picked up at least 19 wins each, boasting save percentages above .912 with GAAs under 2.60.
The Hurricanes finished last in the NHL last season, filling their arena to only 71.3 percent capacity on the season with an average of 13,320 fans per game. This season, Carolina is up to 14,239 fans per game, 76.2 percent capacity.
"The goal was to get relevant. That's the first thing,'' said Brind'Amour. "I felt like we'd kind of fallen off the map, and obviously, we're not done. This isn't the final thing. We want to be the best team. But there's a step that has to be taken, and it's a huge step to make the playoffs. Can't say enough about the group -- just can't.''
Captain Justin Williams was the mastermind behind the Storm Surge, choreographed celebrations the Canes performed after home wins. The celebrations have drawn the ire of many traditionalists in hockey media, including "Hockey Night in Canada" commentator Don Cherry, who ranted about the Hurricanes several times, including calling them "a bunch of jerks."
The Canes would later sell the slogan on T-shirts.
The Buffalo Sabres now hold the NHL's longest postseason drought. The Sabres have not made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season.