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About Last Night: Hurricanes Win First Game of Measuring Stick Series with Lightning

Nedeljkovic and Paquette have a night of firsts while the Hurricanes again prove they are among the class of the NHL.

Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic blocks a shot from Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period in PNC Arena, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. The Canes won in regulation, 4-0, marking Nedeljkovic’s first career NHL shutout.
Kaydee Gawlik

The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning kicked off a playoff-style four-game series last night, and it delivered on all fronts.

Two excellent teams went toe-to-toe, but it was the Hurricanes who pulled through and ended up winning handily. That was just game one, though, and you can rest assured that we are in store for three more excellent hockey games this week.

Before we move onto that, though, let’s talk about last night.

A Night of Firsts

Perhaps the biggest story from last night’s game was Alex Nedeljkovic, who recorded his first NHL shutout in the win.

Now, it actually wasn’t the first time they hadn’t allowed a goal in a game. Back in his first NHL appearance all the way back on January 17, 2017, Nedeljkovic came into the game in relief of Cam Ward almost exactly half-way through the game. Ned went on to stop all 17 shots he faced in ~30 minutes of action.

Saturday was obviously very different, though. It was a full 60-minute performance against the reigning Stanley Cup champions in a tone-setting game, considering that these clubs will go toe-to-toe for three more games.

It was also a big moment for Nedeljkovic in the scope of his career to this point. He has had to work for everything he has gotten in the professional ranks and last night felt like the culmination of a lot of that work.

“You’re just happy for the kid,” Rod Brind’Amour said last night. “He’s been part of the organization for a long time and kind of paid his dues and waited his time. It was just nice to see that he looked good, and he was ready to go. He needed to make some big saves tonight, and he did. The guys played hard in front of him. We’re just happy for the kid.”

His journey is far from over, but last night was a moment to cherish, to be sure.

Cedric Paquette also had a big “first” last night, his first goal and point as a member of the Hurricanes.

Acquired last week in the Ryan Dzingle trade, Paquette clearly wasn’t brought in for his offense. His physical edge had Carolina wanting him to come over in the deal, and he has absolutely delivered on that to this point. He is a hard forechecker and a playable fourth-line center.

That didn’t make his first goal any less nice to see, though. He cashed in on a great centering pass from Jake Bean early in the third period to really put the dagger in his former team.

Even now, in the midst of a four-game Lightning storm, the Hurricanes have a Paquette full of sunshine.

A Playoff-Style Effort

Last night’s game was a lot of fun to watch in large part because of the situation that these two teams find themselves in.

Due to a shuffling of the schedule by the league, last night was game one of four straight between the Hurricanes and Lightning. The game's early stages felt like game one of a playoff series with two clearly good teams feeling each other out. It wasn’t necessarily exciting, offensive hockey, but it was really good hockey.

Things started to open up as the game went along, and it was an imposing effort from the Hurricanes that shows how far they have come over the last few seasons. We’re at the point now where I think it’s fair to say that they aren’t “playing up” to their competition. They’re just really, really good.

That doesn’t mean that they are perfect, though, and there have certainly been instances where they’ve played down to their competition, but these kinds of measuring stick games against teams that are widely considered the league’s best are important in proving that you’re just as good as everyone else.

Last night was a great indicator of that for the Canes if you weren’t already convinced.

Two First Lines

Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov both found the back of the net en route to two-point efforts last night, which was big for them heading into this string of games against Tampa. Still, it shouldn’t be overlooked that this was yet another dynamite game from the trio of Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, and Martin Necas.

At 2:19 of the second period, Trocheck scored the game's opening goal and the eventual GWG. It happened thanks to great forechecking pressure by the line and a good bounce down in front of the net that they definitely earned through how hard they’ve played this season.

That was goal number nine for Trocheck in his 15th game of the season, which re-tied him with linemate Niederreiter for the team-lead.

The Hurricanes’ second line has been everything the team could have possibly wanted and much, much more. They have been flat-out dominant at 5-on-5, playing a perfect brand of hockey for what this team wants to do. Their mixture of speed, skill, size, and willingness to forecheck and cycle pucks in the offensive zone makes them probably the hardest line to stop for the Canes.

Carolina is legitimately running two first lines right now, and this trio was the one that made so much sense on paper entering the season. With Niederreiter bouncing back, Trocheck fitting in and Necas continuing to develop in front of our eyes, the Hurricanes have one of the most productive lines in hockey going right now. At 5-on-5, the line has scored seven goals and given up just one in north of 124 minutes. That’s outstanding.