RALEIGH — The return of playoff hockey to PNC Arena on Monday night, after a ten-year hiatus, began with an electric, standing room only crowd, many of whom had only heard stories about what a Carolina Hurricanes home playoff game was like. It was euphoric, a cathartic release of ten years of pent-up frustration and disappointment.
Midway through the first period of what eventually became a 5-0 railroading of the Washington Capitals, those fans got a brutal taste of the dirty underbelly of those playoff runs of old.
Put Andrei Svechnikov on the list, next to Shane Willis, Ron Francis, Erik Cole, Jeff Skinner and countless others. A chippy game boiled over early, Svechnikov and his onetime idol Alex Ovechkin threw off their gloves, and when Ovechkin leveled Svechnikov with a right fist, sending the rookie down to the ice, Hurricanes fans of a certain vintage undoubtedly got a sinking feeling in their stomach.
They’d seen this before. A fantastic season, a revelation in his first playoffs, cut short by needless physicality that the league should have done away with long ago.
It’s on the league. It’s on Ovechkin, for needlessly taking another sucker punch at Svechnikov on his way down to the ice, already out cold. It’s on the officials in all three games this series, calling some questionable penalties but ignoring three times as many blatant fouls.
It didn’t need to happen. But it did happen, and now the Hurricanes are looking at an immediate short-term future without Svechnikov, and an uncertain long-term future beyond that.
No one needs to be reminded of what befell Skinner, who took years to get back to speed after a series of concussions derailed his Calder Trophy-winning form. It happened to Willis and Francis in the 2001 playoffs, victims of Devils headhunter Scott Stevens. There’s a direct line from there, through Skinner, through Jiri Tlusty who escaped serious injury at the hands of Jack Johnson in 2014, and right to Svechnikov on Monday.
Without the injured Svechnikov - not to mention Micheal Ferland, who left the game after suffering an upper-body injury just minutes before Svechnikov and Ovechkin traded haymakers - the Hurricanes played what might have been their best period all season in the second period. But even if the Hurricanes come back to tie - or win - this series, the focus will be on Svechnikov.
Rod Brind’Amour, always a heart-on-the-sleeve sort regardless of circumstance, was emotional to the point of being near tears when talking about the fight and its aftermath. “Svech means a lot to us, a young kid who just turned 19. He has a special bond with our group, with me too. So when you see that, it makes you sick. I’m still sick to my stomach about it.”
He was far from the only one.
The league allows fighting with a wink and a nod, using the five-minute penalty as a convenient cover to say that it’s obviously not allowed while tacitly endorsing it by putting it up on a shining platform on social media. There will be executives, players, fans, and any number of other stakeholders praising Ovechkin and Svechnikov for settling their scores like men, taking their frustrations out on each other, and with Tom Wilson on the ice there’s certainly something to that point of view.
But whatever your opinion on fighting, there can be no debate that the league needs players like Svechnikov putting on a show like he did in Game 1, when he singlehandedly pulled his team back into a game that they eventually lost but acquitted themselves well after a horror-show start. They don’t need him falling to the ice, out on his skates, taking right fists from a player 40 pounds heavier.
That undersells the bizarre spectacle of Svechnikov, playing his third career playoff game, sufficiently goading the defending Stanley Cup-winning captain into a fight. Svechnikov spoke almost reverently of Ovechkin before this series. One wonders if that opinion has changed.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, the concern is there for Svechnikov’s future. The Hurricanes have seen this before, as a franchise. Monday was a reminder of the star-crossed history of this franchise and brain injuries, and while the feeling in the crowd was predictably euphoric following a win that got the Hurricanes back in the series, the locker room was somewhat more subdued. Justin Williams basically no-commented all questions about the fight, only going at length about Svechnikov as a teammate. He said all he needed to say by keeping his mouth shut.
There is an unsettling understanding that the trajectory of the Canes’ youthful talent could, once again, be altered thanks to a needless spectacle that will be eliminated eventually but not soon enough to protect a 19-year-old’s brain from being injured. Here’s hoping Svechnikov will be the final member of that long, needless line. But that doesn’t help right now, as the Hurricanes face the prospect of dealing - again - with an injury to a key player whose future hangs in the balance.