NEWARK, N.J. (AP)—The Carolina Hurricanes finished the regular season as one of the NHL’s hottest teams, so there seems little doubt what to expect from them in the opening round of the playoffs.
The New Jersey Devils are a different story, despite winning four of the final five games.
Whether the players want to admit it, Brent Sutter’s team is bringing some baggage into Game 1 of the best-of-7 series that gets under way at the Prudential Center on Wednesday night.
Before their late run, the Devils lost six straight. The shuffle in the standings last weekend also didn’t work to their benefit. The Canes, who fell from No. 5 to No. 6 in the seedings, beat New Jersey three times in four games, with the only loss coming last weekend when Carolina rested goaltender Cam Ward.
There’s one other issue the Devils need to overcome. It’s the memories of a year ago. New Jersey also had a late-season swoon and was eliminated by the Rangers in five games in the opening round, losing all three games at home.
“The way it went last year, without winning a single playoff game here, we have to do something right away,” said Zach Parise, whose 45 goals led New Jersey this season.
After practicing for about an hour, Sutter insisted the playoff problems from a year ago ended last year.
“Last year we weren’t playing very well and at the level we needed to be,” Sutter said. “Maybe that’s why I harped on them the past month. I think the last week or 10 days we started finding our way again. I think everyone knows how things have to be done. This year is a different makeup and a different mind-set.”
It’s also a different opponent.
No matter how many points separate them, a Devils-Rangers series is always up for grabs because of the emotional rivalry. Even home games tend not to be home games.
“You work hard to get the home-ice advantage and you have to take advantage,” goaltender Martin Brodeur said. “Last year was tough. For some reason we just didn’t feel at home in the playoffs. Tomorrow we will feel at home for the first time in the playoffs. That’s going to feel good. Last year was not a fun experience, we didn’t play well and the fans had a hard time cheering. This will be different.”
Carolina went 13-3-2 in its last 18 games, matching a franchise record with nine straight wins. Ward posted a 19-7-2 record in his last 28 starts with a 2.30 goals against average, a .922 save percentage and three shutouts. Eric Staal is one of the league’s top offensive threats with 40 goals, including 14 on the power play.
Carolina also has had success in the postseason against Brodeur, who last month set the NHL record for career regular-season wins by a goaltender. The Hurricanes are 10-7 against him. They lost a series to him in 2001, but bounced back for victories in 2002 and 2006, the year they won the Stanley Cup.
“He’s obviously a tough challenge, and he’s just like everybody else, looking to bring their game to another level in the playoffs,” Ward said. “So it’s important that we make life difficult for him out there. For a goaltender, it’s tough to stop the puck when you can’t see it, and we’ve got to make sure we have guys around him.”
Carolina’s big offensive weapon against New Jersey was the power play. It scored on 7 of 16 attempts, getting four goals from defenseman Anton Babchuk.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice expects the Devils to be what they always are — a very defensive, responsible, tough-minded team that will roll four lines.
“They’re going to spend all their time to play more and more like the Devils and not make a tremendous amount of adjustments in their game,” Maurice said. “Frankly, we probably won’t, either. You’re 82 games into the way you want to play, and all it’s going to be is about getting your game out of your team. And I think, in a lot of ways, these teams are evenly matched in a lot of areas, so it’s going to be performance and execution.”
New Jersey lacked that last season in the playoffs.
“We feel good about this year,” said center Brian Rolston, a veteran who was signed by general manager Lou Lamoriello after the playoff debacle. “We have a lot of experience and we know what time of year it is. We have to be ready, and we are.”