Pucks in Deep: Hamilton the Pig and the Carolina Jerks
Pucks in Deep: Hamilton the Pig and the Carolina Jerks
In the first round of the NHL Playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes skated and skated until the defending champs just couldn’t hold on any longer. In the second round, they made mincemeat of one of the league’s top defensive teams. With their insistence on enjoying the child’s game they play professionally, they have implicitly declared war on Don Cherry, mouthpiece of hockey’s old guard and tsar of the most iconic segment in hockey’s television history. Now, Cherry says they are no longer just a “bunch of jerks” but a “bunch of frontrunning jerks.” They are the darlings of #HockeyTwitter with their sparkling Corsi and refusal to play by tired rules.
And yet, as they continue their quest to turn Raleigh, NC into the epicenter of modern hockey, bring Lord Stanley a few hours South down 95 from last summer’s home and redefine our expectations for expected goals (that’s x_Gf for all you statheads out there), and what gets celebrated most is the collective — collective commitment to relentless forechecking, speed through the neutral zone and perfectly placing their sticks on the penalty kill.
Today, I’d like to offer an introduction of these “jerks,” extrapolating on the one they’ve written for themselves on their march to the Eastern Conference Finals. If things continue to progress at their current pace, we’ll be looking at all-out religious revival by mid-August — worshipping five-on-five dominance, anti-establishment hockey and inexplicably brilliant goaltending. Without further ado, these are a few of the Jerks turning the hockey world on its head.
First, there is Justin Williams, 37 years old with a graying playoff beard to prove it. A three-time Stanley Cup winner and Conn Smythe with a reputation as one of the league’s best when facing elimination, Justin Williams is the most famous of the Jerks. “Mr. Game 7,” the uncreative but apt sobriquet he’s earned from his repeated clutch performances, set up the double overtime winner in Game 7 against the defending champions, the Capitals, lofting a fluttering feed to the net mouth for Brock McGinn to deflect past Braden Holtby. The assist was his 15th Game 7 point of his career, an NHL record. In Game 7n of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, it was Williams who registered an empty-net goal to solidify the first Stanley Cup in Carolina franchise history, sending what was then referred to as the RBC Center into a frenzy. Williams spent eight full seasons away from the Canes, winning his second and third Cups in Los Angeles and a pair of Presidents’ Trophies for the Washington Capitals before returning a season ago. Now he’s back, captaining the team on its quest to capture Stanley once again.
Then there’s Sebastian Aho, the rapidly rising Finnish superstar. Aho has quietly become the centerpiece of Finland’s blossoming golden generation, bringing speed through the middle of the ice as a dynamic young puck carrier. He will be due for one of the league’s biggest raises when he reaches restricted free agency (the Hurricanes will almost certainly pay any price he asks). Any serious NHL contender needs a dominant center, and Aho is Carolina’s. In the first round, he went toe-to-toe with Nicklas Bäckström and Evgeny Kuznetsov, winning the match-up handedly at five-on-five. In the second, he helped lead the charge against the Islanders. Now, he will be tested by the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chára, but if the the first two rounds were any indicator, he will rise to the occasion.
Next, there is Jaccob Slavin, the Greek god of stickwork. Slavin is the best defenseman in the world at creating turnovers with his stick, denying zone entries, stripping the puck from unsuspecting attackers and refusing to surrender passes to the slot. In the regular season, Slavin led the NHL in stick checks and ranked third in pass breakups. Add that defensive stick to the fact that he is one of the best puck movers in the league and you’re looking at the prototypical modern defenseman at just a $5.3 million cap hit.
After that, we come to the two Hamiltons. The first, Dougie, is Slavin’s defense partner. While Slavin is the steady defender and adept puck mover, Hamilton is the fleet-footed rush leader from the back end. After Islander Brock Nelson disrespectfully patted Curtis McEhlhinney’s head following a Game 3 goal, Hamilton exacted revenge for his netminder, returning the pat to Nelson’s head in the handshake line following the four-game sweep. Twice traded, Hamilton was rebuked in the trusted hockey man community after a leaked report suggested that Dougie — then playing for the Flames — visited a museum while on a road trip. Shame on him for daring to engage in culture and taking an interest in something other than hockey.
No disrespect to Dougie, but the other Hamilton, a 90-pound adopted pig, is the greater fan favorite. Ham rides around in a red Radio Flyer wagon, was recently hand-fed a carrot by a 500-goal scorer in the NHL on national television and, where traditionally the most famous pigs have been served between buns and soaked in a vinegar-based barbecue sauce, Hamilton the Pig has become an untouchable national celebrity. It is hard to deny that he is the Canes’ biggest star, and the team has yet to drop a game with Ham in attendance this postseason.
Of course, we cannot forget about the most improbable goaltending duo in the league. After out of favor in Detroit and struggling in Philadelphia, the Jerks’ starting goalie Petr Mrázek has been everything and more that his team has needed him to be in his first ten postseason starts, recording a pair of shutouts. His backup Curtis McElhinney was forced into duty after Mrázek suffered a lower-body injury in the second round. After the first decade or so as a serviceable NHL backup, McElhinney has enjoyed an age-curve-defying renaissance in his mid-30s. His unorthodox, fish-out-of-water style has inexplicably produced two of his finest career seasons in the past two years. Though Mrázek is now healthy, it is McElhinney who now leads the Jerks onto the ice as the starting goaltender in the Conference Finals.
Last but not least is the Jerk who coaches this insufferable bunch: Rod Brind’Amour. Known as “Rod the Bod” for his impeccable physique during his playing days, Brind’Amour has injected the upstart Canes with a decided spark, finally turning a team that always seemed on the cusp of contention into a serious playoff threat in his first season in Raleigh. Oh, and did I mention Rod the Bod was also the captain and first to touch Stan when the Canes captured him back in ’06? I can’t think of a better coach to lead this team.
Unfortunately, I can’t cover all the Jerks. The rest you’ll have to meet for yourself as you watch the remainder of the playoffs. For now, eep an eye on Teuvo “Turbo” Teräväinen. His speed and skill coupled with teammate Aho must make the Blackhawks rue including him in a cap dump trade back in 2016. Nino Niederreiter is also worth monitoring, as his arrival at the trade deadline seemed the final piece necessary to the Canes’ ascendance. There are others too — Brett Pesce, Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov. You’d best get to know them soon, as these will be prevalent names for years to come.