One week remains until the Carolina Hurricanes get back into action with an exhibition match against the Washington Capitals on July 29. Three days following that, the puck will drop for Game 1 of the best-of-five playoff qualifier between the Hurricanes and New York Rangers.
Four months with no hockey has left the 2019-20 season blurry, so what better way to get prepped for the upcoming whirlwind of playoff hockey than to recap the Hurricanes’ season and all its greatest moments?
Hurricanes Leap to a Hot Start
Fresh off their inspiring run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2018-19, the Hurricanes blasted out of the gate in a similar fashion, winning the first five games of 2019-20, and quickly positioning themselves atop league standings.
Andrei Svechnikov (eight points) and Dougie Hamilton (seven points) in particular were massive standouts, leading the team in scoring during that 5-0-0 start. It was only the beginning of what would turn into stellar seasons for both of them.
Svechnikov Takes Flight
The Hurricanes announced Wednesday that Svechnikov’s teammates had honored him with the Steve Chiasson Award — an award given annually to the Hurricane who “best exemplifies determination and dedication while proving to be an inspiration to his teammates through his performance and approach to the game.”
It’s not uncommon to hear his teammates and coaches speak so highly of him. Hard work, warm energy, and a great overall person are phrases commonly associated with the young Russian. And those great qualities manifest themselves on the ice in spectacular ways.
Svechnikov had a habit of making headlines in 2019-20. It’s easy to forget it’s only his second season in the NHL, but the 20-year-old put on a dazzling display of talent in his sophomore year, finishing third on the team with 61 points in 68 games. However, none of those points gained more attention than his jaw-dropping, lacrosse-style goal in October.
It says a lot about the Hurricanes’ season that this isn’t even the most memorable moment throughout their 68-game campaign. But we’ll get to that later.
One month after scoring the first lacrosse goal in NHL history, Svechnikov did it again, this time against the Winnipeg Jets. Soon after, “The Michigan” or “The Svechnikov,” as it was now being referred to, began inspiring other players across the league to try it themselves.
Players like the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov came close with several attempts, but couldn’t ultimately convert. Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators was the only other player to successfully score a similar style goal.
Svechnikov’s courage and innovation created a whole new wave — the threat that a player behind the net, deep in a goalie’s blind spot, could bury the puck above their shoulder in the blink of an eye. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a trend that continues in future seasons, but surely it’s a weapon Svechnikov will always be ready and willing to draw.
Hamilton Goes Down and the Dominoes Fall
A flurry of excitement surrounded Svechnikov and the exuberant Hurricanes for the early parts of the season, but that was quickly halted when their star defenseman Hamilton suffered a broken fibula during a game in mid-January.
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It was the first major test for the Hurricanes up to that point — could they overcome losing their best overall defenseman, who was in the midst of a Norris-worthy year?
Carolina held a 27-18-2 record at the point of Hamilton’s injury, allowing 2.72 goals per game. In the 21 games without him, the Hurricanes went 11-7-3, allowing an average of 3.10 goals per game.
Losing Hamilton was a huge blow, but matters got worse later in the season, when another key defenseman, Brett Pesce, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, and both Hurricanes goaltenders — Petr Mrazek and James Reimer — suffered long-term injuries as well.
The trio of injuries was significant not just because of the caliber of players lost, but because all three injuries took place during one historic game.
Emergency Goalie David Ayres Comes to the Rescue
For all the Svechnikov goals, storm surges, and other fun moments surrounding the team throughout the season, none was more memorable than the game in which David Ayres became a hero.
Returning back to Hockey Night in Canada on Feb. 22, the Hurricanes had Pesce and both goaltenders exit the game with injuries, leaving 42-year-old Mattamy Athletic Centre operations manager and Zamboni driver David Ayres to make an emergency backup appearance in goal for the Hurricanes.
Although he was admittedly nervous, Ayres gained more and more confidence throughout the game, stopping 8 of 10 shots in 28:41 time on ice, and pocketing a National Hockey League win — the first for an emergency backup goalie in recent history. The Hurricanes won the game with a final score of 6-3.
Everybody knows the story by now, but at the time, it was an unprecedented situation in a game with incredibly high stakes. It was a moment that traveled not just through the hockey world, but across all realms of sport.
Thanks to their camaraderie and work ethic, the Hurricanes were able to unite around Ayres and put together what may have been their best all-around period of the 2019-20 season.
Justin Williams Makes His Dramatic Return
The subject of many rumors throughout the season, former ‘Canes captain Justin Williams made his much-anticipated return to the Hurricanes when he signed a one-year contract with the team in January.
His decision to step away from the game after the 2018-19 playoff run left his future in hockey uncertain. But when he returned to play his first game back on Jan. 19, the man known as Mr. Game 7 came in clutch again.
In the eighth round of the shootout in a 1-1 tie with the New York Islanders, head coach Rod Brind’Amour summoned Williams in front of the hometown Caniacs.
PNC Arena was in a thunderous frenzy, but Williams took a calculated approach on Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss before slinging a quick wrist shot between his legs, giving the Hurricanes the goal they needed to win the game. At the other end, Reimer made a stop on Islanders shooter Anders Lee, and the Hurricanes secured the victory.
The timing of the NHL season’s collapse was especially unfortunate for Williams. He was on a five-game scoring streak, in which he had tallied six goals, before the season was suspended on March 12.
GM Waddell Stockpiles Aggressively at Trade Deadline
Following the sensational Ayres story, the Hurricanes quickly snapped back to reality, where they still had no immediately viable option in net and two gaping holes on the blue line.
The series of events led general manager Don Waddell to make a flurry of moves at the Feb. 24 trade deadline, just two days following the Ayres win. Waddell pulled the trigger on three major trades — he acquired Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils, Brady Skjei from the Rangers, and Vincent Trocheck from the Florida Panthers to patch up the fractured lineup.
By not acquiring a goaltender, the Hurricanes had chosen to place all their chips on the Charlotte Checkers tandem of Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic. But with four months off, the Hurricanes have since been able to recuperate their roster back to nearly full health — and that includes goaltenders Mrazek and Reimer.
With a healthy roster comes difficult decisions when icing the lineup, as the Hurricanes could have a maximum of nine NHL-caliber defensemen to shuffle through come playoff time.
Hurricanes vs. Rangers Preview
While the Hurricanes looked like they were on a comfortable pace to secure a playoff spot, the new format of playoff qualifiers will mean they’ll have to earn it — and they don’t exactly have the easiest road to get there.
Beginning Aug. 1, Carolina will battle with the Rangers in a best-of-five series, with the winner qualifying for the typical 16-team playoff bracket.
The Hurricanes had four meetings with the Rangers this season. They lost all four. Their woes weren’t just limited to the Blueshirts though — they posted a miserable 8-12-1 record against the entire Metropolitan Division. It always seemed in these games that mattered most, the Hurricanes would flounder.
In particular against the Rangers, the Hurricanes couldn’t find an answer to goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He backstopped the Rangers in three of the four meetings this season, facing a barrage of 132 shots by the Hurricanes — an average of 44 per game. Lundqvist only allowed seven goals in those games, for a sparkling save percentage of .947.
Carolina’s blue line will also be tested with handling the duo of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Panarin’s 95 points this season were good for third in the league, and propelled him to a Hart Trophy nomination. Zibanejad’s 41 goals in 57 games gave him a ridiculous goals-per-game average of 0.72, which was No. 1 in the league.
The Hurricanes will have their hands full at both ends of the ice on top of what’s already a daunting matchup for them. Look for a more detailed playoff preview coming later in the week as the Hurricanes continue training camp in preparation for puck drop.