Over the years I’ve seen something happen in several different sports on the collegiate and professional levels.
It’s a homonym (one I'll admit I made up for the purpose of this article) of the “spoiler” team—which is usually a team that is out of playoff contention in a given season and has been reduced to the role of trying to keep borderline playoff teams out of the postseason.
The “spoiler” team relevant to this case is the underdog of the postseason from whom no one expects much. But they grit their way deep into the postseason and far exceed expectations.
I’ve watched other fans’ teams assume this upstart role over the years, and every time I see it happen I imagine that the team’s fans must be ecstatic, having the time of their lives watching their team show up the rest of the playing field. I feel what they were going through.
However, only one of my teams had done this before—the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 NFL season. But I was still kind of young at that time (I was born in late 1991), and I didn’t understand the significance of what was happening then.
Let’s come back to the modern day. My favorite NHL team, the Carolina Hurricanes, is doing something similar to what the Panthers did six years ago. But let me give you some background information.
The Carolina Hurricanes fired then-head coach Peter Laviolette, on December 4, 2008. Some birthday present—I turned 17 the next day.
I was disappointed; I thought Laviolette was a great man and coach. He had coached the 2005-06 Hurricanes to the first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history. The title had also been the first championship won by a North Carolina professional sports franchise. He was also the only coach I had ever associated with the Hurricanes.
And in Laviolette’s place, the Canes brought back Paul Maurice, who in 2007-08 had coached the Toronto Maple Leafs to an 83-point season. While coaching the Hartford Whalers and Hurricanes from 1995-2004, his teams compiled a 268-291-99-16 record, good for 651 points. Hartford made the playoffs in the 1998-99 season with 86 points and a first-place finish in the Southeast Division before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
The Hurricanes' 88-point season two years later was qualified them for the playoffs. But again they were eliminated in the opening round of the postseason. The next year the Canes earned 91 points. This time they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but still lost.
Each game I watched after the coaching change, I was thinking, “Why in the world would the Canes bring Maurice back? The team is playing horrendously, and even though he has the most wins of any coach in franchise history, he’s still lost about 30 games more than he’s won with us! What could this guy possibly do for us that Laviolette couldn’t?”
Apparently the fans who attended home games at the RBC Center shared my sentiments—Maurice was booed in his first home game back with the team.
But Maurice eventually proved the naysayers wrong.
In early January the Canes provided a brief glimpse of what the team would look like in March and April. They won three straight games by one goal. Two of the games were against teams that would go on to make the playoffs.
But things usually have to get worse before they get consistently better. Following their three-game winning streak, Carolina lost five consecutive games. Four of these games were against teams that failed to make the postseason, and all were lost by at least two goals.
After that slump the Hurricanes won four of their next six games and found themselves playing the Sharks in San Jose. Fans of both teams thought that the Sharks would win easily.
But the Canes went into the Shark Tank and pulled out a gutsy 4-3 shootout win, a victory which marked a proverbial turning point of the season and set the Canes down a much more favorable path toward the end of the season.
The next thing us Caniacs knew, our team had gone 17-5-2 over the last two months of the regular season. The Hurricanes had morphed from a team fighting to stay in the playoff picture to a fixture for the postseason that couldn’t lose.
They had been a boring team to watch play, frustrating and inconsistent in just about all facets of the game—the only possible exception being Cam Ward's work in goal.
They were now an electrifying squad, scoring tons of goals and making superb plays in the defensive zone and the crease. You planned your whole week around their games just so you could watch them play.
If the far-more-publicized Pittsburgh Penguins hadn’t been doing the same thing at the same time, the Hurricanes would have been the feel-good story of the year in the NHL.
At the end of the regular season, the Canes found themselves in the sixth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, an ostensibly incredible feat considering that they were five or six points out of eighth place (and not playing their best hockey) as late as mid-late January.
But was it really such a surprise that the Hurricanes made the playoffs after looking like a junior hockey team in December and into early January? Not really. The Canes have made a name for themselves over the years with a plethora of unfathomable comebacks.
There was the “Miracle at Molson” in 2001. In Game Four of their first-round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens, the Hurricanes scored three goals in the final 16:13. The Canes capped the comeback early in overtime with a game-winning wrist shot from the right point that was tipped in front of the goal and sneaked past the Habs’ goalie into the net.
There’s Nick Wallin. The defenseman isn’t known for his scoring, but his three game-winning goals in overtime have earned him the nickname, “The Secret Weapon”.
Now there’s the “Shock at the Rock.” I’ll get to that in a minute.
As the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference bracket, the Hurricanes were matched up with the New Jersey Devils, the third seed, in the first round of the playoffs. According to what became the team trend, Carolina played a nonchalant Game One in Newark, NJ and lost 4-1 in the series-opening contest.
But in Game Two the Canes turned in a much improved effort and pulled out a 2-1 overtime decision courtesy of defenseman Tim Gleason’s uncharacteristically hard slap shot and Eric Staal’s deflection in front of Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
The Devils won Games Three and Five, while Carolina came out on top in Game Four in heroic fashion. The game was tied 3-3 with the clock winding down the final seconds of the contest. After Devils goalie Martin Brodeur foiled a wrap-around chance, a Hurricane got to the puck and dropped it back to a defenseman on the perimeter of the offensive zone.
Dennis Seidenberg one-timed the pass, and the shot glanced off of forward Jussi Jokinen, who was situated in front of Brodeur, into the net. Pandemonium erupted in the RBC Center after that goal.
The series went back to Raleigh for Game Six with the Devils in prime position to eliminate the Canes from the postseason.
But the Hurricanes turned in perhaps their best game of the collective season—regular season and playoffs—with a dominating 4-0 win at the RBC Center in which Carolina thoroughly outplayed the Devils in every aspect of the game.
The Canes had made such a habit of coming back against all odds that I expected them to win Game Seven, even though the game was in Newark and Carolina had lost two of the three games played there so far in the series.
Oh, did the Canes ever win. If forward Jussi Jokinen’s goal scored with .2 seconds left in regulation in Game Four was exciting, this ending was pulsating.
With about 1:30 left in the game, D Joni Pitkanen slung the puck across the ice from the left point to the right circle, where Jokinen one-timed the perfect pass through Brodeur’s legs for the game-tying goal.
Many of the fans at the Rock probably assumed the game would go to overtime. But Staal figured, “Why not try to score another one?” A tape-to-tape pass from Gleason along the boards gave Staal room in the offensive zone with only one Devils skater defending him.
When he was in the vicinity of the circle, Staal let a snap shot rip. The puck deflected off of the Devil and flew by Brodeur just inside the goal post. The score: Canes 4, Devils 3.
In the remaining 31 seconds of the game, the suddenly desperate Devils did everything they could to put the puck across the goal line.
They brought a sixth skater onto the ice in place of Brodeur. The guys on the perimeter of the offensive zone threw every puck they could corral at the net. The brutes crashing the net hacked incessantly at every loose puck in the area of the net.
Hurricanes fell and dived in every direction, just as frantic to keep the puck out of the net as the Devils were to score. Countless bodies tangled. There was so much frenetic movement around the net it looked like a feeding frenzy.
At the conclusion of the 31 seconds, the Hurricanes emerged as the victor. What followed was a whirlwind of disbelief, elation, relief, calm, and surrealism. I couldn’t believe that the Canes had pulled it off. But they had won, had conquered the devils.
But as thrilled as I still am about the fact that the Hurricanes are still very much alive in the playoffs, I’m nowhere near satisfied. Beating the Devils means nothing now—or maybe that’s just the opinion of this perfectionist sports fanatic.
This run as the spoiler will not be complete until the Hurricanes are lifting the Stanley Cup trophy above their heads, kissing it as they do so.
If they do, I’ll be old enough to appreciate what they have accomplished. Oh, how sweet it would be!