Goals aside, the Hurricanes’ third defensive pairing has already done what’s expected

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Getting game-winning goals from defensemen in back-to-back playoff games isn’t a scenario anyone really expects. It’s the glorious randomness of the postseason, when these magnified moments produce unexpected stars.

Not to mention Ian Cole and Brendan Smith, who combined for six goals in 120 regular-season games, would have been last on the list of potential candidates to make franchise history this way — and Smith’s goal coming short-handed, something only Mike Commodore had ever done for the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs, just ups that ante.

While unexpected, it’s also not quite accurate to say the Hurricanes didn’t plan for this, in some small way. Cole and Smith are both here because the Hurricanes heeded the lessons learned a year ago at this time, when they realized veteran defensemen like these guys — hard-nosed, hard-working, hard-headed — were vitally necessary, whether they scored or not.

Who knew they’d score two huge goals, too?

Carolina Hurricanes’ Brendan Smith (7) and Martin Necas (88) react after a game winning overtime goal by teammate Ian Cole (28) on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 during game one of the Stanley Cup second round at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.
Carolina Hurricanes’ Brendan Smith (7) and Martin Necas (88) react after a game winning overtime goal by teammate Ian Cole (28) on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 during game one of the Stanley Cup second round at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

Smith finished off a pass from Sebastian Aho on Friday at the end of a short-handed rush, the first goal in a 2-0 win that gave the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead in the series against the New York Rangers going into Sunday afternoon’s Game 3. Wednesday, Cole was skating away from the net when he spun and fired a blind shot that deflected off a Rangers defenseman for a 2-1 overtime win.

“It just kind of bounced right to me,” Cole said. “I was looking to pass it to someone and no one was anywhere dangerous. So I guess I’ll just throw it on net and see what happens. Hockey’s a game of weird bounces and it just happened to go in.”

These are typically the kind of players acquired at the trade deadline, experienced veterans who have been through the wars and may be in and out of the lineup during the regular season but are invaluable in the playoffs when games tighten up and the ability to avoid bad plays sometimes trumps the ability to make good ones.

The Hurricanes didn’t wait that long. They brought both in as free agents last summer, while the painful lessons of last spring were still fresh, and it’s paying off now.

A year ago, the Hurricanes nearly lost to the Nashville Predators and were overwhelmed by the Tampa Bay Lightning when Jake Gardiner was unable to contribute, Jaccob Slavin got hurt and they were left relying on some combination of Jake Bean, Jani Hakenpaa and Max Lajoie — who had never played a game for the Hurricanes in his career when he was called up to face the Predators.

It wasn’t merely that the Hurricanes lacked defensive depth. (They did!) It was that their third pairing was so chronically weak that it was routinely victimized by superior and lesser opponents alike. The addition of Cole and Smith was designed to fix precisely that problem, and long before the trade deadline, giving both a chance to settle into their roles on and off the ice.

Those two have fixed precisely that problem.

“They’re both experienced guys,” Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei said Saturday before the team left for New York. “Colesy’s won a couple Cups and Smitty’s been around the league a long time. They know how to play, they know how to play in the playoffs. They’ve done a great job. Obviously scoring goals, but also playing defense. Just a really reliable D pair for us to have.”

And with Ethan Bear in the press box and Jalen Chatfield in the AHL, the Hurricanes have two more defensemen they’re comfortable putting in the lineup if pressed into action.

Smith and Cole haven’t been perfect — they got caught out against the Patrice Bergeron line in Boston, blew a coverage and gave up a big goal in Game 4 — but for the most part they’ve done exactly what they were supposed to do, especially in the two games of this series, which have been extremely closely played and tightly checked.

“I just want to set the tempo,” Smith said. “Play hard defensively. That’s just really what Colesy and I want to do. Just be solid defensively, and if I can chip in offensively, that’s a bonus.”

The goals are a welcome bonus, but just that. A bonus.

That’s not what the Hurricanes expected when they laid these plans almost a year ago. But the rest is.

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