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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Islanders-Hurricanes series personifies NHL's year of the underdog

It's an unexpected matchup but maybe not that surprising when you consider the teams' leadership.

Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney stops a scoring chance

Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney stops a scoring chance during the third period against Islanders forward Mathew Barzal at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 8. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

What were the chances?

Back on July 1, when the Islanders appeared to be in shambles and the Hurricanes appeared to be an afterthought, what were the chances that those two teams would be matched up in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs?

“I don’t think they were very high,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said Thursday. “I don’t think they were very high two weeks ago.”

So goes the National Hockey League’s volatile postseason, in which not one of the four division champions survived the first round. Two weeks ago, the Islanders still were a nice story about overcoming odds and stunning the hockey world. Now, they’re not even the biggest surprise in their own series.

The Hurricanes made the playoffs as a wild card, recovered from a 2-0 deficit in games and a 3-1 deficit in goals in Game 7 against the Capitals in Washington on Wednesday night and made it to this unlikely conference semifinal. In a way, they have out-Islandered the Islanders.

“I’m sure no one thought this would be the case,” Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey said. “But I don’t really care. We’re here, doing it.”

In the context of preseason projections, a second-round matchup between the Islanders and Hurricanes is sort of like seeing the Kansas City Royals play the Texas Rangers in an American League Division Series. It is the result of what Barry Trotz referred to on Thursday as an “unseen hand” or various random occurrences.

“Some of it is controllable, some of it is not,” the Islanders coach said after practice — the first one since April 15 in which they knew who their next opponent would be. “You think as a coach or an organization or even as a fan, you can’t understand, we have a better team and we got beat. There is randomness. When it’s right in your face, you’ve got that instant to live or die. It’s like coming around the corner and there’s a semi right there. You either get hit or you just get out of the way in time.”

But when you look at it really closely, you wonder if it was all that random. Logic had a bigger role than you thought it did. True, neither the Islanders nor Hurricanes is among the most talented teams in the league. Still, both of them have the drive that comes from being called underdogs. Both teams have the leadership, on and off the ice, to handle whatever the playoffs might throw at them.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour brought a certain structure to his team, plus he had the good sense to put the captain’s “C” on Justin Williams, a born leader. During the regular season, Brind'Amour encouraged his players to express themselves, and they took him up on it with choreographed routines on the ice after victories. They took it as a badge of honor when Canadian TV curmudgeon Don Cherry called them “a bunch of jerks.”

Brind’Amour had a wonderful news conference performance late Wednesday night, capped when he admitted he never smelled the roses enough as a player and is darned sure his players will not make the same mistake.

As for the Islanders’ leadership, let’s leave it at this: If Trotz were still behind the Capitals' bench, it is a pretty sure thing that neither the Islanders nor the Hurricanes would be here in the second round. Coaching is huge in hockey.

So is attitude. Both of these teams have it.

“A lot of people have been talking about this a lot and both teams have taken it on and proven a lot of people wrong,” Lee said. “We’re both going to try to do that again.”

It is all just about indescribable except to say, as Islanders forward Brock Nelson did, “Hell of a ride, for sure. It’s been fun and we’re going to try to keep it going.”

What are the chances of that? Who knows? The Islanders have become a favorite, which is a dangerous thing to be this year.

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