When game 82 is just a formality, your season has either gone very well or very poorly.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, game 82 was a formality for all right reasons. With the Metropolitan Division title secured after their win against the New York Rangers on Tuesday, the Hurricanes simply had to get through their season finale against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.
They did more than just get through it, though. They delivered a one-sided beatdown to the Devils at PNC Arena and will now ride the wave of a six-game winning streak into the postseason.
Let’s talk about last night.
On Tuesday night, the Hurricanes experienced another goalie scare when Antti Raanta had to leave the game at Madison Square Garden due to injury.
As it turned out, it was a false alarm, as the veteran returned to the crease last night and put in a promising effort ahead of game one of the postseason.
Through two and a half periods, Raanta allowed just one goal, a perfectly placed snapshot from Fabian Zetterlund from the slot late in the first period. By that time, the Canes held onto a 6-1 lead before allowing two quick goals late in the third period.
Raanta didn’t miss a beat and, most importantly, he looked healthy, as he stopped 27 of 30 shots against the Devils.
“It was good to see him in there tonight,” said Jesperi Kotkaniemi after the game. “He did a great job. We know he’s ready to go with the playoffs next week. It’s good to have goalies ready. The trophy for them says a lot about them. Two great goalies, or actually three now, and they’ve been doing a great job all year.”
The trophy he referred to? Well, that’s the William M. Jennings Trophy, which the Hurricanes secured by allowing the fewest goals in the NHL in 2021-22. Raanta and Vezina candidate Frederik Andersen will be the ones who get their names etched into that piece of hardware in the coming weeks.
“It’s definitely a team award,” Rod Brind’Amour remarked. “Obviously, you’ve got to have good goalies to have a good team. It’s a good little capper to the season. Good commitment from the group.”
It’s the first time in franchise history that the Hurricanes have brought that trophy home, and they’ll hope to see the primary contributor to that award back in the crease early in the playoffs. If not, they will have a tandem of Raanta and young Pyotr Kochetkov, who came in and looked more than ready to play in the league.
Goals and Health
The most important thing for the Hurricanes on Thursday was to escape game 82 without seeing anyone getting hurt, and it would appear as though they managed to accomplish that.
Brind’Amour and company distributed minutes pretty evenly among the players who participated in the action, which included everyone except for Andrei Svechnikov and Jaccob Slavin, who got the night off.
Six different skaters found the back of the net for the Hurricanes, including three depth forwards in Kotkaniemi, Jordan Martinook, and Steven Lorentz. Kotkaniemi, who hadn’t played in 12 days due to injury, returned with a team-best three-point effort.
“Getting a couple of points early sure helps with the confidence and getting back,” said Kotkaniemi. “It was actually easier than I thought to get back in the pace. I think those couple games helped before in Colorado. I think it was good.”
Brady Skjei assisted on Martinook’s third-period goal, getting him to 39 points. Skjei’s breakout season, offensively, has been well documented to this point, but that point tied his career high-high, which he accumulated in his rookie season all the way back in 2016-17.
The offense was spread throughout the lineup, which was a welcomed development ahead of the playoffs.
“It’s not individuals that play the game, but there’s guys who are going to step up,” Lorentz said after the game. “Come playoff time, there’s always guys up and down the lineup that get a big goal here or there or a big shift that can turn the momentum. I think whatever 20 guys are in the lineup are going to bring their best every night, and every guy is going to be itching to play and get the crowd engaged.”
The Hurricanes had an outstanding regular season, but that isn’t new for this club and this core group of players.
What would be new is an extended playoff run that sees them make it through the Eastern Conference. But, of course, that means beating a team that has been the bane of their recent playoff existence in round one - the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Every Eastern Conference playoff team finished in the triple digits in the point category, including Boston and Tampa, the teams that have eliminated the Canes in the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
Depending on the outcome of Friday’s games, the Canes will get one of those two perennial Eastern powerhouses.
The Hurricanes faired well against both clubs during the regular season. Right now, they are lined up to face the Bruins. In three head-to-head matchups, the Hurricanes won all three games and outscored them by a whopping 16-to-1 margin.
If Boston wins and Tampa loses in regulation on Friday, it will be the Bolts in round one. Carolina beat them two out of three times this season, and those games were tightly contested, with the Canes outscoring them 8-7. Each game was decided by one goal, and two of them went to overtime.
Either way, the Hurricanes will have something to prove in round one, and if they want to rise to the top of the food chain, they’re going to have to beat the best when it matters the most.
This is where the fun begins.