Maurice has all the ingredients for an upset

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:26 AM ET

A year ago, he was a dead man walking.

Sure, Paul Maurice was still on the Maple Leafs payroll and overseeing the tedious post mortem of a team not making the playoffs for what was then, a third consecutive season.

But long before the last game was played, Maurice knew his time in Toronto was done as the winds of change were swirling around the Air Canada Centre.

By early May, Cliff Fletcher had made it official and instead of the post-season, Maurice enrolled at the University of Windsor to continue his post-secondary education.

Fast forward to this morning and, rather than cleaning out his locker, Maurice will step on the ice in Raleigh, N.C., with his Carolina Hurricanes, a live underdog team, as sure as there is one, as these Stanley Cup playoffs get set to load into the starting gate.

"I'm really excited to get to the playoffs and not as a back- door team," Maurice said following the 'Canes season finale, a 3-2 loss to the Devils on Saturday afternoon in Newark, N.J.

"(With) 97 points, that makes us a top-10 team in the league and we feel we are in that mix. We have some confidence, but certainly we don't have any arrogance."

The confidence factor is both huge and justified on the basis of the team's recent nine-game winning streak, capped off by a 9-0 blowout of the New York Islanders this past week.

The lack of arrogance stems from the fact that this is a team that made NHL history by becoming the first to miss the playoffs in two consecutive seasons after winning its franchise-first Stanley Cup in 2006.

Late losses to the Devils and Buffalo to end this campaign also cost the 'Canes a shot at home-ice for the first round, but not the belief that they could have another lengthy spring run.

That recent form, plus the fact they are facing a potentially vulnerable Devils squad in the opening playoff round, are just a couple of the reasons the 'Canes are one of the wise guy choices among lower seeds heading into an opening round that seems poised to yield an upset or two.

Making a serious case for the 'Canes and the buzz surrounding them certainly doesn't require that much imagination.

Yes, they got off to such a miserable start that Peter Laviolette was fired in December and Maurice brought back to take the reins of his former team. And yes, there were the late stumbles of the past two seasons.

But there are 10 players on this 'Canes team that were part of the Cup winners three spring ago, the same playoff season that Carolina dispatched the Devils in five games in the conference semifinal.

It was the second time Carolina had upended New Jersey in the playoffs, a claim not many NHL squads can make.

The Devils didn't exactly go deep last spring, getting upset in five games by the New York Rangers in the first round. And further lessening the fear factor has been the up-and- down play of goaltender Martin Brodeur.

At odds of 18-1 overall to win the Cup, the Hurricanes aren't on the short list of anyone's favourites, but you get the impression Maurice would rather have it that way.

With the hot play of goalie Cam Ward, who started 28 games in a row before getting Saturday's final game off, Carolina looks to have the key ingredient of playoff success.

Another, of course, may be the familiar face behind the bench. And with a 17-5-2 record since Feb. 1 and an active workload, Maurice surely won't complain about where the coaching carousel stopped this time.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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