After more than a year of dormancy, PNC Arena in Raleigh finally came back to life on Monday night.
With the combination of the Carolina Hurricanes’ increase to 50 percent fan capacity and the electricity of playoff hockey, the Caniacs blew the roof off of PNC Arena and helped fuel their team to a 5-2 win in Game 1 against the Nashville Predators.
Hurricanes goalie Alex Nedeljkovic said it best about the atmosphere in the building in his post-game interview: “Whatever we had – 12,000 [fans] tonight – it felt like 24.”
While the tempo of the game never slowed, it wasn’t until the midway point of the second period when the Hurricanes really started to step on the gas. Powered by the captain Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes slowly squeezed the life out of the Predators as the game unfolded, and his two goals were a major catalyst that turned the tide in Carolina’s favor.
Staal Leads the Rampage
After both teams traded goals in each of the first two periods, the Hurricanes completely overwhelmed the Predators in the final 20 minutes. After a go-ahead goal by Nino Niederreiter, Staal plunged a dagger into the Predators’ comeback hopes with his 29th-career playoff goal – his first since April of 2019.
It was a terrific regular season for Staal, whose overall play has been so consistent and dominant, it’s gotten him in the conversation for the Selke Trophy. He was on a career-best pace with 16 goals and 22 assists in 53 games, and now he’s gotten off to a fantastic start in the postseason as well.
Apart from scoring timely goals, Staal played with textbook relentlessness away from the puck. His aggressive forecheck directly caused the turnover that led to his second marker, and it was his speed and powerful strides that drove him through the Predators’ defense to score a beauty for his first goal.
That wasn’t the only great performance by a member of the Hurricanes leadership committee. Both alternate captains Jaccob Slavin and Jordan Martinook stepped up in key ways. Slavin logged a team-high 21:25 time-on-ice (TOI) and tallied four hits, all while frustrating the Predators’ forwards at every attempted entry. As for Martinook, he was a wrecking ball on the ice, collecting a game-high seven hits in just 12:44 TOI.
Lorentz Impresses, Hakanpaa Delivers
The veterans were doing their jobs, so how about the young guys? The Hurricanes had a few players dressing for their first NHL playoff game, and they didn’t disappoint. One of the more pleasant surprises was Steven Lorentz, a guy who’s had a long journey to the NHL, and took full advantage of his opportunity to dress for the playoffs.
Lorentz stirred the pot early in the game, throwing his 6-foot-4 body around and creating energy on Carolina’s fourth line. The Predators scored the first goal of the game, but it was Lorentz on the forecheck less than a minute later, who caused a turnover and set up Brett Pesce to fire the puck on net – a shot Teuvo Teravainen tipped into the net to tie the game.
Lorentz’s play was reminiscent of Warren Foegele in the 2019 playoffs, when he was a difference-maker every shift with his energy and puck pursuit. In the NHL playoffs, especially later down the road, even fourth-liners need to be making an impact in some capacity, and the 25-year-old Lorentz definitely made his presence felt with his first playoff point in his first playoff game.
Another newcomer to the NHL postseason was Jani Hakanpaa, the big rugged defenseman who came over from the Anaheim Ducks for Haydn Fleury at the trade deadline. While it was a trade that was overly critiqued for what was essentially a swap of No. 6 defensemen, Hakanpaa plays a physically overbearing style that becomes invaluable in the playoffs.
Hakanpaa was a threat every shift with his physicality, collecting five hits in 16:12 TOI, in what I thought was one of his best games in a Hurricanes uniform. I’m sure if you asked the fans at PNC Arena, they’d also agree with that assessment.
Most notable of all the newcomers, rookie goalie Nedeljkovic was solid between the pipes, just as he’s been all year. He had somewhat of a shaky start, where he was loose with his rebound control, creating some skirmishes in the crease, but the puck settled down for him after the first period. Although he wasn’t busy – he faced just 24 shots – he made a couple key saves when the score was even in the second period.
The 25-year-old Nedeljkovic sported a spectacular .932 save percentage and 1.90 goals-against average in his first full NHL season, outplaying veterans Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to deservingly earn the start in Game 1. Nedeljkovic is a former Calder Cup winning goaltender with the Charlotte Checkers in 2018-19, so he’s not completely unfamiliar with high-stakes hockey. The only question is if he’ll continue to be the No. 1 guy down the line.
With the Game 1 win, Nedeljkovic became the first rookie goalie to win a playoff game for the Hurricanes since Cam Ward in Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. Not bad.
Hurricanes are Healthy and Ready to Make a Run
Sunday’s Game 1 of the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning series was a hot topic in the hockey world for its torrid pace, brutal physicality and exciting finish. That game, and series, is going to set the tone for what the Hurricanes should expect to see as the playoffs continue on.
From what we saw in Game 1, it appears they’re able and ready to match that elite level of play. The ‘Canes will have to play the winner of that series should they advance past the Predators, so it’s a good standard to judge how far of a run this team will be able to make.
Good news for the Hurricanes, is they’re largely healthy. Hurricanes forward Brock McGinn made his return to the lineup after a 19-game absence and had an excellent showing, playing his usual part as a momentum builder, dishing four hits and drawing two penalties.
With his return, as well as Slavin and Pesce’s, the Hurricanes are now only missing forward Cedric Paquette. Paquette was on the ice for practice Monday, but was ruled out for Game 1 of this series. His undisclosed injury caused him to miss the final six games of the regular season, and it remains to be seen if he’ll re-join the Hurricanes in this series.
With that said, the ‘Canes have a very deep lineup in all three aspects – forwards, defense, and goaltending. If an injury should come their way, they’re well equipped to deal with it and still remain at the top of their level.
In the Predators’ case, however, they’ll need to find answers. They were outshot 38-24, outhit 56-49, and had no response to the overwhelming force of the Hurricanes in the third period. It didn’t go any better for them in the regular season either, where Carolina won every meeting except for the final two games of the season, when points didn’t matter and the Hurricanes were short key players.
Nashville will be looking for revenge in Game 2 on Wednesday night. The two teams will battle off every other day until the series completes and a winner is determined.
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.