The Carolina Hurricanes faced down one of their most challenging portions of the season to this point last week, tasked with closing out their mighty first half with a four-games-in-six-days stretch.
Starting with a 4-3 overtime win against the Pacific Division-leading Vegas Golden Knights, the Canes rattled off four straight wins, and they did it by braving through a quartet of tight, one-goal games.
Fresh off of a lowly performance against the New Jersey Devils, the Hurricanes blew a two-goal lead in the third period to the Knights, but their stars shined bright in overtime.
Andrei Svechnikov’s power move and puck recovery that led to Sebastian Aho’s game-winner set the stage for what would be one hell of a week for him coming through in the big moments.
Nino Niederreiter’s game-tying goal late in the third period in Ottawa two nights later pushed the Hurricanes into overtime and, eventually, their first shootout of the season. Carolina was the last of the NHL’s 31 teams to go to a shootout this season, and again, it was Svechnikov who made the difference.
The team returned home for two home tilts to close out the first half, winning a pair of 2-1 games that shook out in drastically different ways.
Svechnikov’s bullrush of a goal in the first period gave the Canes a 2-0 lead and ended up being the game-winner. Antti Raanta allowed his only goal of the night late in the first period and put up a game-deciding second period before the Hurricanes clamped down and held the Devils to just four shots in the third period.
To close it out, Frederik Andersen went toe-to-toe with former Hurricane James Reimer and came out on top again after more heroics from #37.
“He wants to win, and he’s competitive, sometimes maybe a little too much, but I think he’s starting to figure that out,” Rod Brind’Amour said when asked about Svechnikov. “He’s just a tremendous athlete, person, player, everything. We’re excited with him. Is he gonna keep getting better? Yeah, it’s hard to believe, but I think he still can get better.”
Svechnikov’s torrid offensive production in January was the difference-maker on a regular basis. In 12 January games, Svech racked up seven goals and 16 points, and he capped it off with two consecutive games wherein he scored the game-winning goal. He logged north of a point-per-game at 5-on-5 over that stretch.
While he didn’t make the cut for the Metropolitan Division All-Star roster, he supplied plenty of reasons to be considered for that honor for the first time in his career. It will happen in due time.
The Hurricanes haven’t had many stretches like the one they just had. It’s just the second time this year that the team had a four-game stretch wherein all the games were decided by one goal. They were forced to dig deep to deliver the decisive blow late in the third period or into overtime in three of those games.
“We had our ups and downs in there, which you’re going to have,” Brind’Amour said of his team’s four-game stretch after Sunday’s game. “But it felt like every game it was a different story, and different guys stepped up. Different guys played well to get us wins, and I thought everyone contributed, especially tonight. Each game had its own different flair, but at the end of the day, you’re about winning games.”
Carolina’s play in all situations has gotten a lot of love this year, and it's well deserved, but if you ask Brind’Amour what the difference has been so far, he will look somewhere else.
“I feel like we’ve played well all year,” said Brind’Amour. “Our record speaks for itself, and I think our record is that good because our goaltending has won us a bunch of games where we weren’t that great, or the other team was better, or it was even. And yet we’re pulling out these victories because our goaltending has been that good. We have a good team, but I think our goaltending has been a difference-maker.”
The goalie experiment has been a rousing success. Like many, I doubted the upside of this new tandem, but Andersen, in particular, has proved all doubters wrong through 42 games.
The former Maple Leaf has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. With his 27-save outing against the Sharks, he set an NHL record for most wins in a goalie’s first 30 games with a new team.
Coincidentally, he also ranks tied for fourth on that all-time list with 22 wins in his first 30 games with the Anaheim Ducks.
He certainly knows how to make an excellent first impression.
Among the 40 NHL goalies with 15+ starts this season, Andersen has the most wins, the second-highest save percentage, and the second-highest goals saved above expected.
Oh, and he has the most points. Because why not?
Raanta has been great as well, but his health has been an issue as it had been for many years. He went nearly an entire month without playing before returning on Whalers night and having a 24-save effort in a 2-1 win.
Outside of the one poor outing in Columbus, which was immediately followed by his one-month absence, he has been as advertised.
The Hurricanes have the second-best team save percentage in the NHL at .917. Every goalie category that Andersen or the team places second in can be blamed on Igor Shesterkin and the New York Rangers.
The Hurricanes will have a much-needed week off now that the All-Star break is upon us, but they will be sending three people to Las Vegas.
Andersen’s record-breaking first half was more than good enough to get him an All-Star bid, as was Aho’s team-leading offensive barrage.
Aho ranks 16th among all NHL forwards in points, and his production from December 1 through the end of January was remarkable. He logged 24 points in a 15-game stretch through January 25, and his offensive zone faceoff win led to Svechnikov’s game-winner on Sunday.
Him winning big faceoffs has been an increasingly common occurrence over the last two seasons. His 53.3% faceoff win rate this season is a career-best number.
With Brind’Amour making his first trip to the All-Star festivities as a head coach, now is the time to have a game for the coaches. I just want to see how that would play.
This new era of Canes hockey is underway, and the team will continue to be well-represented among the league’s best players as a result.
Enjoy the show.