After an NHL season played in mostly empty arenas, fans have pushed playoffs over the top

While the Carolina Hurricanes were preparing for Game 5 on the ice on Tuesday morning, a platoon of technicians, pipefitters and the like were elsewhere in the building, continuing the complicated process of installing the ventilation and dehumidifying equipment necessary to allow more than 12,000 fans into PNC Arena.

It’s a rush job now, racing to get it all set up in hopes it might be ready in time for a potential Game 7 on Saturday, letting the Hurricanes throw the doors open to a full house in what would be the most important game of the Hurricanes’ season.

The Hurricanes would obviously prefer it not come to that, and that by taking care of business against the Nashville Predators in Tuesday night’s Game 5 and Wednesday night/Thursday morning’s Game 6 — a fan-unfriendly 9:30 p.m. ET start in Nashville — the installation crew would have plenty of time to get connected and take airflow measurements before the first game of the next series.

It was all originally planned for June 1, and the tickets for future rounds on sale now to season-ticket holders show almost the entire building available should the Hurricanes advance. (Nashville will bump to 14,107 for Game 6.) But it has still been a rush to move more quickly despite all the pieces to fit and numbers to crunch to the NHL’s satisfaction, and for very good reason.

If it comes down to one game for everything, and this series has been so close it very well could — within a goal for all but 13 minutes of 16 endless periods — at least there’s a chance the Hurricanes could have the full, full-throated home-ice advantage they earned in the regular season.

And it matters, perhaps this year more than ever.

We’ve seen that in this series, how the home teams have fed off their very loud crowds, seemingly even more than usual after a season played in mostly empty buildings. There’s a newness to it, a sudden novelty, that seemed to lift the Hurricanes in the third periods of games 1 and 2 and certainly lifted the Predators as games 3 and 4 dragged on .. and on … and on.

The players did a remarkable job of creating their own atmosphere and intensity in the otherwise antiseptic playoff bubble hockey last year — at least outside of early elimination games, when teams on the ropes were clearly ready to get out — but there’s really no comparison to this.

The difference between the environment in Raleigh and Nashville and the empty building in Winnipeg last night as the Jets swept the Edmonton Oilers was all the more striking now that we’re no longer used to it.

There’s been a lot of the unexpected in this series, good and bad. The Hurricanes only expected to have 6,000 fans in the stands, instead of these 12,000 that have sounded like 20,000. That’s good. They thought they’d be able to count on Jaccob Slavin’s usual metronomic performance on the blue line, but only had him for Game 1. That’s bad. (But could change Tuesday night.)

And they thought after winning the first two games, they had a decent chance to complete a sweep in Nashville, or at least bring it back here with a chance to close it out. And they did have that chance, only for Nashville to score both double-overtime goals and put the series back on level terms.

That opened the door to the possibility of a Game 7, and the Hurricanes would need all the help they can get should they end up in that situation. There’s still a chance they could get it.

Carolina Hurricanes vs. Nashville Predators

What: Stanley Cup playoffs, Game 5

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m., PNC Arena, Raleigh


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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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