RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes had a three-game losing streak in the second week of the regular season. They endured another five-gamer before 2018-19 was a month old.
By New Year’s Day they had lost more often than they’d won, and so it’s not a stretch to say that no one expected these self-proclaimed Jerks to still have at least one game left to play now.
Their precarious position in the Eastern Conference Final hinges on one question: Down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins, do they have anything left to give with their season on the line Thursday? The answers spoken into the microphones were about what you’d expect.
"We’ve gone to the well and found something in there every time," said veteran centre Jordan Staal. "I think we’ve got a young group, an eager group, that’s ready and willing to show up every night. I have no doubt in my mind that everyone in that room is going to give it all they got and then some.
"We’re going to fight as much as we can until it’s done."
We have reached the stage of the spring where fatigue is a very real factor. The enthusiasm that greets the early days of the playoffs has long since dissipated, and players must fight through the fog to summon the energy necessary to play the 97th game of the season while also keeping their minds off the potential futility of the pursuit.
This is particularly true when you need to beat an opponent four straight times just to keep playing. It’s a long climb with no safety netting.
On top of everything, there has to be a small sense of disbelief inside the Carolina dressing room that a special season delivered them here: To a series where they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third period of Game 1, got their doors blown off in Game 2 and peppered Boston with 33 shot attempts in the first 20 minutes of Game 3 and lost by a goal.
"These are tough ones to recover from, they are," said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour. "That’s just the human nature of it. That’s our job today — pick up the pieces — and tomorrow know that it’s going to take that same effort, plus something else, to beat these guys.
"That’s the challenge."
Arguably the best attribute Brind’Amour fostered in this group during his first season as head coach was belief. He continued to stress that things were about to turn when they sat at 15-17-5 on Dec. 31 and the players kept playing hard enough to prove him right.
Where they stand now is anyone’s guess.
The Bruins have unquestionably been the better team in the series — owning a decided edge in power play and penalty killing situations while riding a goaltender in Tuukka Rask who has stopped 124 of his last 129 shots dating back to the second round.
It’s a formidable task.
But as captain Justin Williams was quick to point out, they don’t yet know how Boston might handle a little bit of heat in their corner. Every comeback starts with the shifting of pressure from one side to the other and while the Bruins have proven their mettle earlier in the playoffs — erasing 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 deficits to Toronto, and a 2-1 deficit to Columbus — they’ve only trailed for less than 14 total minutes against the Hurricanes.
"Being down 3-0 creates an opportunity for yourself and that’s the way you have to look at it," said Williams. "You have to instill a little bit of doubt [in the opponent] and that’s the first step you have to do. But you have to do that by winning a game, and we haven’t been able to do that."
Getting a lead early in Game 4 would be a start. Playing as much of the game at 5-on-5 as possible would be preferable, too, considering that Boston’s scored five power-play goals compared to one for the Hurricanes in this series.
Williams has been part of a team that pulled out of an 0-3 hole, helping Los Angeles accomplish the feat against San Jose in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Incredibly the Kings won by scores of 6-3, 3-0, 4-1 and 5-1 after losing three straight.
However, it’s not like the captain can wave a wand and have younger teammates like Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho suddenly see the magic formula. Instead, the Hurricanes need to hope their winding path to this moment yielded some important lessons, and that there’s still enough will remaining in the group to keep pushing back against the Bruins.
"I think [Brind’Amour’s] toothpaste [analogy] is pretty good with that, huh? You get to the end of the toothpaste and you can always squeeze a little bit more…," said Williams.
"Just a little bit extra," echoed Staal.
"I like Roddy when he said that," said Williams. "So we’re going to try and squeeze as much as we can out of our toothpaste here. We’ve got plenty left in it."
No one expects too much from Carolina now.
Maybe they’ll find a way to surprise us yet again.