The Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets concluded their four-game series Thursday, after a grueling and competitive clash that had all the makings of a playoff series.
The week-long affair featured two games in each team’s barn, all of which were won by the road team. The Hurricanes technically came out on top, having secured six out of a possible eight points, while the Blue Jackets collected just five. It was an incredibly close set of battles, with three of the four games requiring extra time. The only real dominant performance was Carolina’s 3-0 blanking of Columbus on Mar. 23.
|Hurricanes vs. Blue Jackets March Series||Date||Score|
|Game 1 @ CAR||Mar. 18||CBJ 3, CAR 2 (OT)|
|Game 2 @ CAR||Mar. 20||CBJ 3, CAR 2 (SO)|
|Game 3 @ CBJ||Mar. 23||CAR 3, CBJ 0|
|Game 4 @ CBJ||Mar. 25||CAR 4, CBJ 3 (OT)|
As close as the series was, my takeaway is that the Hurricanes were the better team. The only game they were truly outworked was Game 4, where goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic stood on his head in the second and third periods, making save after save to allow the Hurricanes to hold on.
That’s becoming a recurring theme for Nedeljkovic, who has clawed his way to the top of the depth chart this month, and is quickly becoming a legitimate No. 1 goalie for the Hurricanes.
Alex Nedeljkovic Steals the Show
The starter in three of the four games, Nedeljkovic was arguably Carolina’s best player throughout the series. He posted a 2-0-1 record with a .928 save percentage (SV%), 1.95 goals-against average (GAA) and one shutout.
Those numbers are right in line with his stellar play this season as a rookie. The 25-year-old currently ranks fourth in SV% (.928) and sixth in GAA (2.05) among goalies who have played 10 or more games. Nedeljkovic has been so impressive, head coach Rod Brind’Amour finally allowed him to start back-to-back games for the first time this season.
Nedeljkovic seems to have that X-factor the Hurricanes have been missing between the pipes for the last several years. He’s a scrappy goaltender who likes to get involved in the play – whether that be with his puck-handling ability, or his aggressiveness on chances in-tight. It seems the only way to beat him has been with a clean, hard shot to the top corners of the net, where he has a little more trouble covering due to his smaller stature.
Nedeljkovic had plenty of help from his goalposts in this series – there’s no denying that. But he also never once gave up a softy, and did an excellent job of controlling his rebounds. When the Blue Jackets came swarming in Game 4, he made some of his best saves of the season, constantly bailing out his team’s defensive lapses.
The Hurricanes have four more back-to-backs left on the season, with one coming up against the Tampa Bay Lightning this weekend. James Reimer is sure to start one of those games, but it’s Nedeljkovic’s job to lose as the dash for the playoffs intensifies.
Martin Necas Can’t Be Stopped
I don’t know if there’s ever been a time Martin Necas has had more fun playing hockey, but having a partner of Sebastian Aho’s quality will do that to you. The Hurricanes’ new dangerous duo was all over the ice this series, controlling play and creating chances. Together, they buried five of the Hurricanes’ 11 goals, but could have scored twice that many with the amount of opportunities they generated. Of all the flashy goals they’ve scored together, their biggest connection of the series came via the overtime winner by Aho in Game 4.
For Necas in particular, this has been a coming out series for him. With an injection of confidence, the 22-year-old seems to have gained an extra step in his stride, forcing even the best of defensemen like Seth Jones and Zach Werenski back on their heels.
He’s had a dynamite month of March with 13 points in 12 games and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. While Vincent Trocheck and Teuvo Teravainen remain out of the lineup long-term, Necas has stepped up to fill an important void, while opening up the opportunity for new-look lines when Trocheck and Teravainen do come back.
The Czech winger is certainly having a breakout year, and whether teams are fully aware of how quickly he can turn their defense around remains to be seen. With the force and composure he displays at a seemingly breakneck speed, teams are going to have to come up with new ideas of how to stop both Necas and Aho when they’re blazing the ice together.
Svechnikov, Foegele Miring Slumps
No need to raise red flags, but it’s the midway point of the season, and Andrei Svechnikov still hasn’t found any semblance of consistency. He pocketed one goal in the series against the Blue Jackets, but it’s the only goal to his name in his last nine contests. In fact, since starting the season with six goals in his first eight games, he has just three in his last 24.
Svechnikov has had little help in terms of linemates this season, and it seems like Brind’Amour is content to leave him there to operate his own line. The Russian winger, who celebrates his 21st birthday today (Mar. 26), has just six goals at even strength this season, but he hasn’t let that stop him from putting in the work to get back to where he needs to be.
Warren Foegele is another player who seemed to take some heat this series. From being on the ice for the overtime goal-against on Mar. 18, to infamously missing the empty net in Game 4, Foegele had his fingerprints on this series, but not always in the way he wanted.
As a player, he’s got good size, speed, and takes care of a lot of the little details that coaches preach. But Foegele just hasn’t been able to finish plays this season, and seems to be snakebitten at every turn.
In my eyes, it feels like Foegele’s time in Carolina is slowly winding down. He’s a pending restricted free agent, he doesn’t fit in the top-six, and there are guys like Brock McGinn and Jesper Fast who do his role better. The trade deadline is rapidly approaching, and Foegele is the perfect player to use as trade bait. The 24-year-old is an energy winger who can play the left and right side, and has shown flashes of offensive capability in the past.
Using their wealth of picks and prospects, the Hurricanes should be active in the trade market for a forward in the next few weeks, and Foegele is the perfect roster player to sweeten the pot of a potential deal.
Hurricanes Badly Need Help Up Front
When you think about how well the Hurricanes are playing without two of their best forwards, it’s not a stretch to say they have the potential to be one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. But the lack of help from their bottom-six is becoming an obstacle.
While the Hurricanes’ forward core does a good job of crashing the net and grinding away defensemen on the forecheck, they’re still essentially running two fourth lines. That also leaves them with few options for the man-advantage outside of their top group. They still own the league’s best power play (30 percent), but went just 1-for-9 in the Blue Jackets series, scoring their only goal with their No. 1 unit.
There are a few players the Hurricanes could target before the April 12 trade deadline. Eric Staal of the Buffalo Sabres, and Mikael Granlund and Viktor Arvidsson of the Nashville Predators would all be good fits for the club. In the case of the Predators, they may be hesitant to deal with a divisional opponent, and when it comes to forwards, the 2021 deadline is shaping up to be a seller’s market. If last season is any indication, however, general manager Don Waddell will have the phones running like clockwork to ensure the Hurricanes are well-outfitted to make some noise in the playoffs.
The Hurricanes have one last meeting with the Blue Jackets on May 1 in Raleigh. While the season series has had elements of a playoff series, Columbus will have to up its play in order to earn a spot battling against the Hurricanes in the 2021 postseason.