It could well go down as the singular moment that changed the course of the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff push.
With five minutes remaining in the first period of a scoreless game, a missed pinch by Justin Faulk sprung the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and William Nylander on a 2-on-1 back the other way. Brett Pesce was back, and played the rush as well as he could, but Matthews’ pass was perfect and there was nothing Petr Mrazek could do to keep Nylander from tapping home for a 1-0 lead.
In a game featuring teams that were a combined 62-13-6 entering play Tuesday when scoring first, Nylander’s goal was an early backbreaker. Despite carrying play, and somehow missing on a sure goal a few minutes before when Lucas Wallmark hit the post on an open net, the Canes were in deep trouble.
As the players returned to the bench, there was murmuring that Nylander may have been offside. “Everyone was saying ‘you have got to check it,’ because it was so close,” said Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour. “And then our guys in our booth did a nice job. It was right away. It was obvious, not even close.”
But even things that are obvious to most observers may not be to the NHL situation room. Brind’Amour had a big decision to make and only a few seconds to make it.
Video coach Chris Huffine radioed to the Canes’ bench: challenge the call. He was absolutely sure, and Brind’Amour said that if he wasn’t, he never would have challenged. Even if it was a challenge the Canes could have won, not being 100% sure would have risked handing a free man advantage to the league’s eighth-ranked power play.
“It’s then, when you have Toronto with the power play like they have, do you really want to risk it at that time of the game?” Brind’Amour asked. “There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Brind’Amour has been open in the past about how he expects his team - not just players, but coaches and other support staff too - to be empowered to make the call. That trust paid off in spades on Tuesday. Having worked with Huffine as a player long before becoming a coach, the familiarity and the trust that’s built up over time was called upon at a crucial moment.
It had to be a lead-pipe lock to use the challenge. It was, and the goal came off the board.
“Those ones are nice because they are so easy. Usually those are a lot closer,” said Brind’Amour. “When it’s so obvious, it really isn’t that tough.”
And when the call came back for no goal, the Canes bench was elated, according to Justin Williams.
“When we came back to the bench and they said ‘get away from the center dot, we’re pretty sure this is offside,’ it’s nice. It’s a lot different chasing the game than being in control of the game and playing with the lead. Very important.”
They turned that elation into jubilation three minutes later when Williams - of course - opened the scoring, this time for real, to give the Canes a lead they would never relinquish. In a bit of poetic justice, the Canes also had a goal of their own called back for being offside when Brock McGinn was into the zone a shade before Sebastian Aho’s shot at the empty net crossed the blue line.
That one didn’t matter. The first one most certainly did, and on a night when the team the Canes are fighting for a playoff spot upset the top team in the league, it was a key call at a key time. Brind’Amour has challenged four plays for being offside this season, and he’s won all four of them, a significant improvement over the 2-for-15 performance of Bill Peters on offside challenges from 2015-2018.
“It’s always great when you go from being ‘oh man, we just messed up’ to [getting] a do-over,” said Brind’Amour. “Not often do you get do-overs in our game. That was nice.”
It wasn’t just nice. It could be the difference between the Canes extending their season beyond Saturday and a tenth straight year of an early summer.