RALEIGH — The Hurricanes will undoubtedly need to shift gears for their second round series against the New Jersey Devils, which begins with Game 1 Wednesday at PNC Arena.
The Islanders, who Carolina beat in six games to advance past Round 1 for the fifth straight year under coach Rod Brind’Amour, take great pride in playing the grimiest game possible, eschewing scoring chances for defensive dependability.
The Devils, let’s just say, are more likely to fly by the seat of their reptilian tail.
“We played enough to know each other’s (tendencies),” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said of both the Rangers and Devils prior to New Jersey winning Monday’s Game 7 on Monday to advance. “I don’t think there’s going to be surprises, but I think it’s just how we want to do things — gas down and do the things that we want to do on the ice.”
Derek Stepan, who assisted on the overtime winner in Game 6 against the Islanders, said every round presents a new challenge.
“Every time you reset a series, it’s a new opponent, it’s a completely different animal,” he said. “Everyone has to adjust.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Carolina being a favorite — to be upset.
Despite holding the best record of any of the remaining playoff teams, the Hurricanes are again prime targets for pundits. One story in The Athletic that asked an unnamed scout, coach and executive to pick winners in the second round had all three selecting New Jersey to win the series.
Even Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk, who still faces the prospect of playing Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, said before Game 1 of the Panthers’ series against Toronto that he considers the Maple Leafs the second-best team in the NHL behind the Bruins.
“Everybody picked the Islanders to beat us too,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “I saw all those guys, the hockey people on the networks, and I don’t blame them. If you don’t watch us every night over 82 games and you just say, ‘Well, you just lost a whole offensive line off your team (to injuries).’ You do that to any team and I’d probably pick the other team to win if I haven’t really dove into your group.
“But we’ve got a lot of other good pieces here. And I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the series, no one does, but I know we’re gonna give a pretty good effort, I can tell you that. And that gives us a chance to every night.”
A deep dive into the Devils’ lineup quickly reveals a couple of familiar faces.
First there’s Dougie Hamilton, who left Carolina as a free agent following the 2020-21 season to sign a seven-year, $63 million contract with New Jersey. Hamilton ranked fourth among defensemen in scoring during the regular season with 74 points, registering a career-high 22 goals along the way. He had three points in the first round against the Rangers, scoring his lone goal in overtime of Game 3.
While Hamilton is certainly an offensive threat, the biggest adjustment the Hurricanes might have to make compared to going against the Islanders’ defense is Hamilton’s ability to retrieve and get pucks out of the zone against Carolina’s forecheck. That’s something that New York’s top pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech struggled to do in big minutes in Round 1.
“You just have to do your job, and obviously you have an eye on players like that,” Aho said when I asked him about facing either Hamilton or the Rangers’ Adam Fox in Round 2. “You’re trying to take time and space away and not let them have time to make a play. Because they’ll make a play.”
Also waiting for Carolina in Round 2 is Erik Haula. The Finnish center played 41 games for the Hurricanes in 2019-20 before being dealt to Florida in the deal that brought Vincent Trocheck to Raleigh at that season’s trade deadline. Since then, the Hurricanes have faced Haula in each of the last two playoffs. On his sixth team in five seasons, the 32-year-old will again line up opposite his old team in the postseason.
“He’s a good player,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s why he’s been on a lot of teams because teams realize that he can play, and he’s been one of their better players.”
During those two series against Carolina, first round matchups against the Predators and Bruins in 2021 and 2022, respectively, Haula developed into a villain at PNC Arena — one of the few former Hurricanes to face such vitriol after leaving Raleigh.
“He’s the only guy that’s left here that seems that that’s going on,” Brind’Amour said with a laugh. “I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t know what happened there.”
What happened is Haula has leaned into being an agitator since leaving the Hurricanes. Outside of accumulating 17 penalty minutes in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals with Vegas against the Capitals in 2018, Haula had taken just seven minor penalties in his first 48 career postseason games.
He’s taken 16 PIMs in his last 20 playoff games, 12 of which came in 13 games against the Hurricanes over the last two seasons. He had five hits with the Bruins in Game 1 against the Hurricanes last year and six more in Game 7.
Haula will certainly try to get under the skin of Carolina’s top players — Seth Jarvis was a target last year — and the Hurricanes will try to end his season for the third straight year.
“We’ll get another series of him,” Brind’Amour said, “and hopefully the same result.”