Hurricanes’ best rise to the occasion as Carolina sweeps Islanders

Curtis McElhinney stopped 26 shots and the Hurricanes beat the Islanders 5-2, winning their series in a clean four-game sweep.

This Carolina Hurricanes, famously dubbed “a bunch of jerks” by Don Cherry for their over-the-top, “storm surge” celebrations, were three points out of last place on Jan. 1, and now they’re the first team in the National Hockey League advancing to the Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They overcame the reigning Cup champion Washington Capitals in seven games of the first round and took a 3-0 stranglehold in their second-round series with the New York Islanders. And it’s clear now, in the aftermath of Friday’s 5-2 win in Game 4, they were prepared to take advantage of their first opportunity to advance further in these playoffs.

“You never look at the big picture, you’re always focused on your next game,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said prior to puck drop. “Whether we’re up three or down three, you want to be desperate to win that game. That’s the approach we have to take. You know the other team is going to be that way. They don’t have a choice. Sometimes having that tomorrow is not a good thing. When your backs are against the wall, you give it everything you can. We have to come with that mindset as well.”

The Hurricanes did, responding to an early New York lead with their first power-play goal in seven games and 21 attempts, and they never looked back from that point on.

Here are our takeaways from this series.

Your best players have to be your best players

Carolina’s did their part.

Whether it was Sebastian Aho (who had a goal and an assist in Game 4 to extend his totals to two goals and two assists in the series), or Teuvo Teravainen (who put up a goal on Friday to extend his to two goals and three assists against New York), or Justin Williams, or Jordan Staal, or Jaccob Slavin, the Hurricanes had their best going all the way through.

It was the polar opposite for the Islanders who scored just five goals in the series. Sure, they got unlucky in Game 1 and 2, and they were outclassed in Games 3 and 4, but their best players were nowhere to be found in any of them.

Anders Lee led the team with 28 goals this season and finished with zero against Carolina. He had one goal all playoffs. Brock Nelson, who had 25 goals this season and three more in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, managed just one meaningless goal with 1:09 remaining in Game 4.

Only Mathew Barzal played more than either player at 5-on-5. He had two goals in the series—including New York’s first one in Game 4—but he failed to do what he does best, which is set them up. Barzal finished with zero assists in the series.

Curtis McElhinney was remarkable

In Game 3 of the series, the 35-year-old became the oldest goaltender in NHL history to make his first-ever start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

He came into the action halfway through Game 2, having not made an appearance since Apr. 6, after starter Petr Mrazek went down with a lower-body injury. He was even better than what he showed in his 33 regular-season games, over which he went 20-11-2 posting a 2.58 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.

In two-and-a-half games of this series, McElhinney allowed just three goals on 75 shots. He’s a big part of the reason the Hurricanes moved on in four games.

Lehner deserved better

You have to feel for Robin Lehner.

He’s a shoe-in for this year’s Bill Masterton Award after coming out on the other side of a well-documented battle with mental illness as well as drug and alcohol abuse to post the best season of his career. He could also prove to be the Vezina Trophy winner, as he was named a finalist for the award annually given to the league’s best goaltender. And he came into Friday’s game with a playoff-leading .946 save percentage.

To see Lehner allow the first shot he faced, and then two more goals in 1:06 of the second period, was tragic. To see him yanked from the game and forced to watch his banner season unravel from New York’s bench was an unbefitting end to this chapter of his career.

Greiss could have been a wild card

As Islanders coach Barry Trotz played coy with the media regarding his starter for Game 4, you couldn’t help but think it was Thomas Greiss’ turn to take the net.

Not because Lehner had squandered his chance, but to perhaps turn the tide of the series with a goaltender who had been just as reliable this season. One who posted a 2.28 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 43 games this year.

Granted, Greiss hadn’t played a game since Apr. 4, but he also went 4-0 against the Hurricanes this season—posting 1.76 goals-against average and .949 save percentage in the process. If he came in and recorded yet another win, it probably would’ve planted a considerable—and much-needed—seed of doubt for the opposition.

Instead, Trotz stuck with Lehner, and Greiss came in cold after the Hurricanes had scored those rapid-fire goals to bring the crowd at PNC Arena out of their seats.

The result? Greiss allowed the first shot he faced, which proved to be the 100th point of Williams’s magical playoff career.

Still a memorable season for Islanders

We’re not sure how much better it could’ve gone.

The Islanders, who lost franchise player John Tavares to free agency last summer, were expected to be a team competing for the top position in the draft lottery. Never mind a playoff position. So consider it a success they went 48-27-7 and fell just one point shy of the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division.

They surprised again with a first-round sweep over the Penguins, and they played their hearts out in the loss to Carolina. The series was much closer than the outcome indicates, so it’s disappointing they couldn’t win a game of it.

But, on the bright side, the foundation has been laid for the Islanders to be a bear to contend with for years to come. Trotz came in and brought them from 31st in goals against in 2017-18 to first the category in 2018-19. Lehner and Greiss were sensational, as noted above. And several quality prospects are on their way to join Barzal, Lee, Nelson and company in short order.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.