If you’ve been watching any Central Division hockey recently, you’d agree – it’s time to stop labeling the Carolina Hurricanes as underdogs.
After a 10-2-2 March that vaulted them above the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Hurricanes breezed through their busiest month of the season and came out of April with 24 points in 16 games, stringing together a 10-2-4 record. First in the division, first in the NHL, and yet few out there really consider them to be true contenders for the Stanley Cup.
The craziest part about their rise to the top is that over the last two months – that’s 31 games – the Hurricanes have only lost four times in regulation. It’s time to put to bed the stereotype that the Hurricanes are underdogs, and begin to embrace the idea that they’re a serious force to be reckoned with this season.
As the ‘Canes continue their torrid pace, they’ve had contributions from everybody, but these are the three players who were key in their most recent surge of success.
Third Star: Alex Nedeljkovic
With more starts, Alex Nedeljkovic certainly would have ranked higher on this list, but seeing as he only started seven of the Hurricanes’ 16 April games, third star is about where he belongs. That’s also the theme around his season in general. He’s only started 20 games, and for some, that’s not enough to qualify him for awards like the Calder or Vezina Trophy. That’s unfortunate, because he’s more than deserving of being nominated for both.
Nedeljkovic’s body of work in April includes a .941 save percentage (SV%), 1.72 goals-against average (GAA), and a 5-1-1 record. You’ll see a similar story if you look at his numbers as a whole this season. With a .932 SV% and 1.94 GAA, Nedeljkovic ranks No. 1 in the league among goalies who have played 10 or more games.
April saw the return of Petr Mrazek, and it was long theorized how head coach Rod Brind’Amour would use his three goalies once that happened. With James Reimer slipping slowly into the background, Nedeljkovic was given the opportunity to take that starter job, and between his and Mrazek’s spectacular play, the Hurricanes were able to vault themselves to the top of the standings.
Mrazek has been great this season, but he has once again had his spectacular year curbed by an injury. While it doesn’t seem to be serious, it’s still a concern with the playoffs just around the corner. And that only makes Nedeljkovic’s emergence even more valuable.
It’s really time to start thinking of Ned as one of the NHL’s premier goaltenders. There’s been talk about how his numbers are unsustainable over a full season, how he’s going to fall back to earth and the honeymoon phase will soon end. But it hasn’t. Nedeljkovic keeps on getting better, and it’s at the point now where even if Mrazek is healthy, Nedeljkovic should be the guy in net for Game 1 of the playoffs.
Second Star: Jordan Staal
Jordan Staal is another player who falls into the category of hot starts. The Carolina captain cooled off for a stretch in March, but roared back with a ferocious performance in April, tying for the team lead in goals with six, and adding seven assists for 13 points in 16 games.
With his 0.77 points-per-game (PPG) average, Staal would be on pace for 63 points in an 82-game season. That’s incredible for a guy whose career-high in a season is 50, and who many thought (including myself) would be relegated to quieter bottom-six minutes this season. But the 32-year-old center has been a difference maker on every shift. His physicality and sturdiness has always been a staple to his game, but he’s gained a whole new confidence with his play with the puck this year.
Staal has been able to give the third line an identity more complex than just a shutdown unit, and has the ability to play with any kind of winger. This season he’s been paired up with Andrei Svechnikov during some of their hot streaks, other times he centers a heavy and powerful forechecking line with guys like Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele.
So if you’re voting for the Selke Trophy, how can you not consider Staal? He logs a team-high 2:10 shorthanded time-on-ice (TOI) per game for forwards on the NHL’s third-best penalty kill (84.4 percent). He also plays crucial power play minutes on the top unit – and he’s the go-to faceoff guy in both those situations. It’s a huge reason why the Hurricanes’ power play is first in the league (27.2 percent), as puck possession has become one of the most important aspects of the modern game.
The Selke is awarded to the best defensive forward, but it’s no secret offensive production also matters. Staal has the numbers this year, and he’s an absolute beast defensively, so you have to think he’s more than worthy of getting a decent amount of votes.
First Star: Sebastian Aho
After what I thought was a mild first half to the season, Sebastian Aho is back to looking like the best Hurricane on the ice, especially in the month of April. Aho was a top-10 point producer in the NHL last month, scoring 18 points in 16 games. His six goals tied with Staal for tops on the team.
Aho was reunited with his old linemate Svechnikov in an attempt to get the Russian winger out of his funk. And in the two games since Teuvo Teravainen returned from his concussion and joined them on the top line, Svechnikov has four points in two commanding wins. With the “SAT” line back in business, the Vincent Trocheck line rolling and Staal anchoring the third unit, the Hurricanes have become a matchup nightmare to opposition coaches.
Aho’s ability to make his linemates better is a big part of what makes him so valuable. When he and Martin Necas were paired together last month, Necas exploded with 17 points in 14 March games, earning him first star honors. Since being moved to Trocheck’s wing, Necas has cooled off, but it just goes to show how great of a catalyst Aho can be.
With the season winding down and only six games remaining, the Aho takeover is coming at the perfect time. He’s currently riding a six-game point streak in which he’s collected three goals and eight assists. With two games in hand, the Hurricanes have a two-point lead on first place in the division. With the remainder of Carolina’s schedule coming against lower-tier teams, the Hurricanes have a chokehold on the Central Division. All they have to do is tap it in and they’ll secure the top seed in the postseason.
Preparing for the Playoffs
For the past couple weeks, the intensity has been ramping up as the regular season draws to a close. Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers have brought the heat in their recent matchups with the ‘Canes, and that’s what they’ll have to prepare for when their inevitable playoff matchup rolls around.
The Hurricanes are hot, but timing has also been good with Teravainen returning to the lineup and finally looking healthy. Mrazek is still out, nursing a lower-body injury, but with Nedeljkovic’s spectacular play, goaltending is the least of their concerns.
The depth they’ve shown in April is exactly what they need to carry them through the playoffs. The blue line has been solid as usual, and they’ve had some of the league’s best goaltending this season. With the offense flowing and all facets of the lineup clicking, the ‘Canes this year have a team that can truly contend to win a Stanley Cup.
Matt Cosman is a Sheridan College print journalism graduate from Oakville, Ontario. I’ve been with THW since 2019 covering the Carolina Hurricanes, one of my favorite childhood teams. When I’m not in my hockey bubble you can probably catch me jamming out on the piano or losing money at the poker tables.