RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The challenge is familiar for the Carolina Hurricanes entering the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They’ve established themselves as perennial playoff team, one that has claimed three straight division titles. But they’re again working to turn a strong regular-season run into the deep postseason push that has eluded them of late, starting with a first-round series against the New York Islanders.
Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is Monday night.
“We’re not looking to just make it past the first or second round, or just have a little bit of success,” Carolina forward Seth Jarvis said. “We want to win the whole thing. I think that’s everyone’s kind of mindset in this group, that we have a group to go deep and a group that wants to make some noise.”
There’s been relatively little to criticize in Carolina’s five-year playoff run, the first since the former Hartford Whalers relocated to North Carolina in 1997. They finished third in the league standings in each of the past two seasons, and was second to Boston this season.
Yet since reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 — which included a second-round sweep of the Islanders — the Hurricanes haven’t won more than one series in each postseason. They’ve lost the past two years in the second round despite having home-ice advantage.
“Obviously we haven’t won it, that’s the goal,” veteran forward Jordan Martinook said. “That’s what we want to do. If we don’t do it, then it’s going to be not a success.”
“It’s been a long year here to get to this point, it took us all 82 (games) obviously,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said.
Before that, they had reached the playoff semifinals in each of the previous two seasons.
“I can’t tell you how hard last year was, just not playing in those big games, in those big moments,” star center Mathew Barzal said. “We want to be in the spotlight and that’s what the playoffs is. We’re excited.”
The Islanders appear set to have Barzal back after he missed the last 23 games with a lower-body injury. He began skating earlier this month but joined the team for practice for the first time on Friday.
The Islanders went 14-7-2 in Barzal’s absence.
Barzal, who had 14 goals and 37 assists in 58 games, rejoined Lee and midseason trade acquisition Bo Horvat on the Islanders’ top line. He also took his customary spot on the left side on the top power-play unit.
“He’s a huge part of this team, he’s got a tremendous amount of skill and his speed and ability to make plays,” Horvat said. “That just adds another dimension to our group. We’ve missed him and we’re happy to have him back. Hopefully he can play Game 1.”
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The goaltender picture seems clearer for the Islanders than the Hurricanes.
Ilya Sorokin had a stellar season, going 31-22-7 with six shutouts, a 2.34 goals-against average and .924 save-percentage. Down the stretch, the 27-year-old Russian was 14-5-2 with a 2.24 GAA over his last 21 starts to bolster the Islanders’ push for a playoff berth.
Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour hasn’t publicly named a starter in a rotation of Frederik Andersen (21-11-1, 2.48 GAA, .903 save percentage) and Antti Raanta (19-3-3, 2.23, .910).
Carolina forward Martin Necas will try to carry a breakout year into the playoffs. The 24-year-old posted career highs of 28 goals, 43 assists and 71 points to reward the franchise’s belief in his potential.
Last year, Necas managed five assists in 14 goal-less playoff games.
“I had a tough year, but in my mind and in everyone’s mind here, that’s why they kept me here,” Necas said. “They knew I’ve got to play better, and finally I started showing it.”
Power-play goals could be hard to come by in this series.
The Hurricanes are 20th in the NHL on the power play (19.8%) while the Islanders are 30th (15.8%). Both are much better on the penalty kill, with Carolina ranked second (84.4%) and New York ranked ninth (82.2%).
Carolina hosts Game 2 on Wednesday before the series shifts north for Friday’s Game 3 and next Sunday’s Game 4.
If necessary, Carolina would host Game 5 on April 25, New York would host Game 6 on April 28 and the Hurricanes would host Game 7 on April 30.
AP Sports Writer Vin A. Cherwoo in New York contributed to this report.
Aaron Beard, The Associated Press