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Blue line special: Hurricanes defense setting tone in playoffs

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Carolina Hurricanes' Justin Faulk (27) and New York Islanders' Brock Nelson (29) chase the puck during the first period of Game 4 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, May 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Saturday, May 4, 2019

RALEIGH — Justin Faulk, just moments after prying off his ice skates and shimmying out of his sweater and pads, stood barefoot in front of his locker with a camouflage Carolina Hurricanes hat atop his head.

He never sat down, the high of sweeping away the New York Islanders in four games with Friday’s 5-2 win was enough to hold off exhaustion for a while longer.

The splotches of flush, red skin that shone through the defenseman’s dark and patchy beard were the remnants of a game-high 27:07 of ice time during the Hurricanes’ second-round clincher. Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour sent Faulk onto the ice shift after shift, and the 27-year-old answered with a pair of assists.

The young defenseman’s play highlighted the series-changing capabilities of a group that is playing as well as it ever has.

“We have guys that skate well and move the puck well and you want to utilize that,” Faulk said. “It’s one of our strengths for sure, and you don’t want to hinder that so you want those guys to make plays with the puck and our D can do that.

“We’ve been doing that a lot of the year, and especially when we needed to step up at the end. It’s been going good and hopefully we can keep pulling our weight back there and keep the group going.”

The win was Carolina’s sixth in a row and it sent the team into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since losing there in 2009. The Hurricanes will play the winner of the Boston-Columbus series, which was tied 2-2 before Saturday night’s game.

Carolina got here by storming through the Islanders with the help of a trio of goals coming in the first 8:51 of the second period. The margin was enough to put a safe distance between the desperate Islanders and the Hurricanes, who just had to hold onto the lead.

The defense proved to be up for the task.

The forwards scored each of the five goals, but defensemen tallied assists on three of the goals. And it’s those blue line players that have set Carolina apart from its opponents these playoffs.

The defense took over the series by shutting down the Islanders’ scoring lines all while factoring into the offense. Carolina allowed five goals to the Islanders over four games, compared with 20 allowed to Washington in the first round.

“They did a really good job because we were trying to get as many pucks to the net as we could,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They had good sticks, they got in the lanes, they did a lot of good things. They closed quickly and they had a lot of back pressure. Give them a lot of credit. They come at you.”

The Hurricanes bolstered their defense over the offseason after missing the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. Additions of defensemen Calvin de Haan and Dougie Hamilton brought a unique set of skills that helped shave off 32 goals allowed from 2017-18 to this season.

Hamilton is a talented puck-moving defenseman, while de Haan can play with opponent’s scoring lines. Hamilton, at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, was tied for the league lead in goals scored among defenseman with 17 last season playing for Calgary. He finished second in his first year with Carolina with 18 goals.

It isn’t a stretch to call the six blue liners the foundation of this team, despite the wealth of young, talented forwards who are emerging into elite players.

“It’s been our strength and we knew coming in that we had a very good D group that we made better in the offseason,” Brind’Amour said. “I feel like it’s definitely the strength of our group. When they’re on, regardless of how we’re playing up front, we have a chance every night.”

The defense backed up their coach’s statements with an inspired performance in Game 4.

Jaccob Slavin, who is playing in his first postseason, has a playoff-high 11 assists and his three takeaways and four blocked shots on Friday were game-highs. Faulk, who notched a pair of helpers on Friday, is now up to five assists, while his blue line partner Brett Pesce is up to six assists after adding one Friday.

It was Faulk who started the connection that led to the power-play goal by Sebastian Aho in the first period, and it was Faulk who had the lone assist on the final goal of the night.

“Our D, they’re really good. They make a lot of good plays and have been really strong the whole year, especially in the playoffs,” Aho said. “There’s a lot of guys with a lot of points already, so they’ve been big for us.”

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