When a second wave of COVID-19 hit the Carolina Hurricanes last week, it felt like there might finally be a stall in what has been a well-oiled machine in the red sweaters this season.
Instead, the Canes won back-to-back games at home in commanding fashion, beating the Red Wings 5-3 and the Kings 5-1 despite having six starters in COVID protocol and playing the Detroit game with just 16 skaters.
“Nothing surprises me with this group,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour following the win over L.A. “When you think it maybe will be a little too tough, they find a way. Just a gritty effort up and down the lineup from pretty much everybody. It was one of those special wins.”
The Hurricanes got those two big wins at home without Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Jordan Staal, Steven Lorentz, Seth Jarvis and Ian Cole, beating the Red Wings playing two skaters short and then topping Los Angeles with a lineup that featured five AHL call-ups playing with the forward group.
And the AHL call-ups aren’t just skating for the Canes, but contributing to the wins as well. In the win over Detroit, Jack Drury scored his first NHL goal while his Chicago Wolves teammate Andrew Poturalski picked up his first NHL assist. The Wolves have been a wagon in the AHL this year, and the collective talent of that group carried it well to the NHL stage.
“I think all of our players in Chicago are really good and getting to play with a couple of them tonight made it easy,” Drury said. “It felt seamless. I think the culture we have in Carolina blends down into Chicago and I think we bring that same work ethic that they do up here and try to have the same mentality that way whenever someone’s number is called, they’re ready.”
And then against the Kings, Drury scored again, with Poturalski and Josh Leivo finding the scoresheet with assists.
“It’s pretty impressive,” said Jesperi Kotkaniemi. “In the situation we are in, guys come up and play on that level, it’s just crazy. That tells you about this organization and how good it is. We can trust those guys every night. It’s been great.”
To make matters maybe more impressive for the Canes, last week’s slew of call-ups from the Wolves wasn’t even the first time this season Carolina has gotten solid NHL production from AHL players.
When Tony DeAngelo and Brett Pesce went into COVID protocol at the end of November, Max Lajoie and Jalen Chatfield joined the Hurricanes and immediately started playing strong hockey, with Chatfield (now on the IR with a lower-body injury) garnering particularly high praise for the way he stepped up and played.
“The two callups that we brought up, Max and [Chatfield], have played great,” said Brind’Amour during that stretch. “Maybe better than we expected. We’re missing some All-Star caliber players. Those are big losses. For those guys to step in, they’ve played as well as they could have. It’s been a pleasant surprise, for sure.”
And while the level of production from the Wolves call-ups has certainly been a surprise, it isn’t a completely random thing.
A lot of credit belongs to the Hurricanes’ front-office staff and scouting department, which has clearly done quite a job in building the foundational depth needed to survive an NHL season, particularly a season during the COVID era.
“It’s organizational depth,” said Brett Pesce after the Detroit win. “It speaks volumes to the scouting staff and front office. It’s amazing. You saw Jack scoring and he was making things happen. [Poturalski] got his first NHL point. They’re not just playing and going through the motions, they’re contributing to that win. That’s exciting to see for sure.”
It’s something that has been a big talking point for the Canes for the past few weeks now, with the lineup somewhat of a revolving door but the results continuing to be more and more of the same.
“That’s huge,” said Jaccob Slavin. “That speaks to management doing a great job of providing depth down the organization. And then these guys get their opportunity, and they’re capable players. They come up and do what they do best, and that’s just play the game. They’re great skaters. For them to come in and play the way they have is huge.”
The Carolina Hurricanes are among the NHLs leaders, with 43 points in 29 games heading into the holiday break. It’s also been over a month since the Canes were at full strength.
But the wins keep coming, and it’s the organizational depth, along with a culture developed in Raleigh over the past few years, that has kept the train chugging along.