- One team was sitting dead last in January; the other hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2009. They’re facing uphill battles now—taking on perennial springtime juggernauts from San Jose and Boston. But so what? The underdog Hurricanes and Blues have already showed that anything is possible.
This story appears in the May 20, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The boy shuffles to the back row of the chapel, one hand stuffed in the front pocket of his youth hockey sweatshirt, and approaches the most celebrated member of the congregation with a sheepish look. “Hey, Jaccob,” he says, pulling out a smartphone. “I have something for you.”
A large image is glowing on the screen. It’s a broom.
Looking up, Jaccob Slavin chuckles. “Typically there isn’t that much Canes emotion at our services,” he explains later, but then again these are unorthodox times around Raleigh. The night before, May 3, the 25-year-old workhorse defenseman—and dedicated churchgoer—logged nearly 26 minutes in the Hurricanes’ 5–2 win over the Islanders, concluding a second-round sweep and earning the franchise’s first Eastern Conference finals berth since 2009, which happened to be its last postseason appearance altogether.
And now, some 14 miles north of PNC Arena, assistant pastor Steven Madsen is beginning his Saturday evening sermon with a welcome message for new worshippers at Bay Leaf Baptist: “Obviously, you may see shirts that say, bunch of jerks,” Madsen warns, referring to the phrase used by Canada’s favorite fuddy duddy, Don Cherry, when he ripped Carolina’s delightful Storm Surge victory celebrations during a February television segment. “Don’t worry. We’re not jerks.”
The pastor pumps a fist. “Go, Canes.”
Tonight’s reading will cover Acts 7:54 through 8:3, though if Madsen had wanted to lean harder on a Hurricanes metaphor, he could have chosen 1 Samuel 17. While hardly a wooden slingshot, the 85-flex CCM stick of winger Brock McGinn sufficed to slay the defending champion Capitals in the first round, redirecting a Hail Mary centering pass from captain Justin Williams in double OT of Game 7. Not bad for a franchise that began 2018–19, as coach Rod Brind’Amour puts it, “nowhere on the map in the NHL world.”
The long-shot narrative isn’t special to Carolina, though. The Davids of hockey have gotten their due throughout the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, which began with all four wild cards reaching the second round for the first time. But only the Hurricanes scored another upset, setting up their conference showdown with mighty Boston and its Goliathan defenseman Zdeno Chara. In the West, St. Louis has overcome even longer odds, becoming the first team in more than two decades to earn a playoff berth after sitting dead last in the league on New Year’s Day. “We’re the same way,” says Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, now battling San Jose for the Western Conference crown. “A lot of people wrote us off a long time ago.”
So what gives? Is it simply the NHL’s newest testament to parity, another example of the most unpredictable postseason in pro sports, where more Presidents’ Trophy winners have flamed out in the first round than made it to the Cup finals over the past decade? “Anything’s possible,” says Williams, speaking from experience as a member of the 2013–14 Kings, who won the Cup as a No. 8 seed. “In basketball, the best teams with the best players usually win. Hockey is nothing at all like that.”
Then again, maybe something greater can be gleaned from the shared traits of both remaining underdogs: their fiery new coaches, rosters of unlikely heroes and season-long climbs from the league cellar.
Start the search in St. Louis. Don’t mind the disco.
On Dec. 1, less than two weeks after being promoted to interim coach by the Blues, Craig Berube was sitting on the patio of a brewhouse in Glendale, Ariz., catching up with an old teammate from his playing days with the Flyers. The conversation was casual at first. “Drinking, reminiscing,” recalls Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. Then Berube brought up his team, which had sunk to 9-13-3 with a 6–1 loss to Tocchet’s that night. “I remember his face,” Tocchet says. “He looks at me and goes, ‘We’re not dead here. I’ve just got to get these guys to believe.’”
Hope had abounded over the summer, when a spree of offseason acquisitions—forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and St. Louis-area native Patrick Maroon—put the Blues in preseason Stanley Cup discussions. “Then we s--- the bed,” Maroon says. By Thanksgiving coach Mike Yeo was gone, and up stepped Berube, the former NHL tough guy (3,149 career PIMs over 17 seasons) who never lost his feisty spirit. “A lot of players didn’t have confidence or swagger,” says Maroon. “He put that back in us.”
But the real spark came fittingly on Berube’s old turf. On Jan. 7, 25-year-old goalie Jordan Binnington pitched a 3–0 shutout at Philadelphia in his first NHL start. He went on to set a franchise rookie record with 24 wins, finishing with the lowest GAA (1.89) by a first-year netminder in the expansion era.
A lithe 174 pounds with bamboo-stalk legs, the 6' 1" Binnington thrives in the crease thanks to a blend of hyper-flexibility and strong puck-reading. He has also, justifiably, earned a reputation as the Blues’ icy-veined savior: After Binnington blanked the Predators on Feb. 26, a reporter asked whether he found tight games nerve-wracking. “Do I look nervous?” deadpanned Binnington.
He has, however, shown glimpses of what St. Louis defenseman Joel Edmundson calls, “that little wild side.” Recent examples include sparking a brawl by slashing an opponent in the minors last November; swinging at Stars captain Jamie Benn after the second period of Game 4; and, moments later, hacking at Dallas goalie Ben Bishop’s stick while headed off the ice. “But he handles the pressure pretty well,” says Edmundson. Indeed, the netminder responded with a .950 save percentage in Games 5 through 7, including consecutive one-goal outings to clinch the series.
As every St. Louis fan will attest, the arrival of Binnington is also significant for its connection to another defining moment of the season. Underneath the Gateway Arch, the origin story of “Play Gloria!” is well-known now: The day before Binnington’s debut, a group of Blues were invited by a friend to watch the Philadelphia Eagles game at a members-only club. “Probably 30 guys in there who all grew up together, straight Philly,” Edmundson says. A deejay was spinning tunes during commercial breaks, and someone kept requesting “Gloria,” the 1982 platinum hit sung by Laura Branigan:
The phrase became a rallying cry as the Blues took to blaring the song after every victory, including a franchise-record 11 straight from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19. And now? “It’s pretty much playing in the entire city,” Pietrangelo says. This includes the radio airwaves: The station Y98 recently looped “Gloria” for 24 straight hours after the Blues’ double-overtime clincher against Dallas. And of course at the Enterprise Center in the wake of that same game, though it was largely drowned out by a deafening crowd chanting:
PAT! MA! ROON!
It was the perfect hometown-hero moment for the 31-year- old Maroon, a bargain free-agent pickup who earned his $1.8 million salary by pouncing on a loose puck that had slipped past Bishop. Upon scoring, Maroon spotted his 10-year-old son, Anthony, in the stands. Anthony was crying, so Maroon began weeping too. “That’ll be a memory for the rest of my life,” he says. The celebration continued as the Blues decamped to a nearby restaurant, where they stayed up late reliving the 2–1 win. “Well-deserved to sit around and talk about it,” Maroon says.
After all, everyone enjoys a good underdog story.
Take Brind’Amour. He loves Rocky. “Seen it a hundred times, easily,” says the Hurricanes coach, who sometimes sprinkles Sly Stallone quotes into pregame speeches. His absolute favorite scene takes place after Rocky has decided to take on Apollo Creed. “Mickey’s telling him that he’s a bum, but he’s like, ‘I’ll fight the champ,’” Brind’Amour says. “Rocky’s saying, ‘I’m digging in. It may not work out, but I’m going to do it.’”
The low point of Carolina’s season came around Christmas. Frustrated over a 10th loss in 13 games, the ordinarily cool-headed Williams called a players-only meeting and ripped into the team for growing complacent. “It was emotional,” Slavin says. “It was about deciding what team we’re going to be for the rest of the year. Are we going to be in the middle of the pack? Or are we going to make some noise?’”
The Canes responded by digging in, winning seven of their next eight and finishing the season on a 31-12-2 tear, the NHL’s third-best record over that span (behind Tampa Bay and, of course, St. Louis). Along the way, much to Brind’Amour’s delight, a bunch of Balboas have emerged—like Slavin and fourth-line center Greg McKegg, who blew the roof off of PNC with the backbreaking goal in Game 4 against the Islanders. “At the end of the day, the Rocky story is grit and hard work,” Brind’Amour says. “That’s what our group is. We’re not the best team, talent-wise. We know that.”
Few NHL players can relate to that sentiment more than Rod the Bod, captain of Carolina’s 2006 Cup-winning team; even today, Brind’Amour can be found each morning at the gym, performing every exercise in a weighted vest. His unfailing work ethic has rubbed off on the well-conditioned Canes. “I think that’s why our third period is usually our best,” McKegg says. But the team has also benefited from a lesser-known side of its bench boss: Brind’Amour the Brain, mastermind of a speed-first system that saw Carolina possess the puck for nearly two-thirds of even-strength time in the Isles series, according to team data cited by GM Don Waddell.
Likewise, the Blues took their cues from Berube and steadily punched their way up the standings. “It’s been our motto ever since we were in dead last: Just stick together,” Maroon says, a notion that was reinforced by GM Doug Armstrong’s bold decision to stand pat at the trade deadline. “That’s the cool thing about the NHL: Anyone can win.”
Even so, the roles are set. The Bruins have more actual Davids than anyone else in the conference finals—forwards Pastrnak, Backes and Krejci combined for 13 points during their second-round takedown of Columbus—but Boston is a true Goliath after winning 49 games in the regular season, third most in the league. And though San Jose is searching for its first Stanley Cup just like St. Louis, the Sharks have only missed the playoffs once since 2002–03. Plus, center Joe Thornton is literally nicknamed Jumbo.
Through two games Carolina struggled to contain Boston’s attack, getting outscored 11–4, and St. Louis dropped Game 1 before rallying for a 4–2 win to even its series Monday night. But regardless of what happens from here, the script of this spring has already been dramatic enough to fill a Hollywood movie . . . or a drive-time radio show . . . or a Saturday night church sermon, delivered by a fist-pumping pastor.
The only thing missing is the Storm Surge. The home-ice postgame celebrations were retired in late March. Left behind was a legacy of memorable skits—defenseman Trevor Van Riemsdyk dunking a basketball; McGinn slamming a stick like Thor—as well as a few that never saw the light of day. “We had a football one for Super Bowl Sunday, and a Star Wars–themed one for Star Wars Night,” Slavin laments. “Didn’t come to fruition.”
But there’s always hope the tradition will be revived. Imagine the possibilities if the Hurricanes captured the Stanley Cup in Raleigh. Maybe the equipment managers could even scrounge up some slingshots.