It’s been talked about for months, and on Wednesday, it became a reality.
The Carolina Hurricanes returned to the ice in a competitive hockey game, albeit a tune-up for the real thing that starts Saturday at noon with Game 1 of their five-game play-in series with the New York Rangers, against Washington at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
But simply playing again wasn’t enough to get a smile on coach Rod Brind’Amour’s face after a 3-2 exhibition loss to the Capitals.
“We were just too cute,” Brind’Amour said of his team. “For the first game back from a long layoff, we were trying to be too cute and that’s why we came up on the short end.”
That said, it was a good chance for Brind’Amour and the coaching staff to evaluate his players, lines, pairings and goalies — the teams were allowed to dress 13 forwards and seven defensemen in the exhibition — in an effort to try and decide on a lineup in three days.
“We’ve got a lot of decisions to make now,” Brind’Amour said. “All along we knew that this time would come and having to really put the best lineup out there possible. Obviously with a couple of guys out, that makes it a little interesting as well.”
While Brind’Amour wasn’t thrilled with his team’s performance — though sympathetic — the Capitals seemed to pick up where they always leave off. Namely, with the puck on Alex Ovechkin’s stick.
Ovechkin factored in all three Washington goals, sandwiching two goals around an assist to lead the Capitals.
After eight-plus minutes of feeling each other out, the teams alternated three goals in just over two minutes’ time.
The Capitals captain opened the scoring in a familiar way, one-timing a shot from the left flank past Petr Mrazek (13 saves on 16 shots) for a power play goal and a 1-0 lead at 8:27 of the first period.
The Hurricanes quickly responded, with Vincent Trocheck getting credited with the tying goal 30 seconds later — after a long review due to the net being knocked off by a Capitals player — after he swept in a loose puck behind Washington goalie Braden Holtby (12 saves on 13 shots) to make it 1-1.
“It’s always nice to get on the board,” said Trocheck, who played seven games for Carolina before the shutdown after being acquired at the trade deadline in a trade with Florida. “It’s been a while since we’ve been playing hockey, so just to be able to get a goal and kind of feel the rhythm of the game and puck on your stick a little bit, it’s obviously gonna help you out a little bit confidence-wise.”
Ovechkin — never lacking confidence — then got his second point, feeding the puck to countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov for an easy backdoor tap-in and a 2-1 Capitals lead at 10:34 of the opening period.
Ovechkin wasn’t done, getting his third point and second goal off an odd-man rush to push Washington’s lead to two at 12:25 of the middle frame.
Carolina got some momentum early in third, converting on a 5-on-3 power play when Teuvo Teravainen one-timed a Sebastian Aho pass past Vitek Vanecek (13 saves on 14 shots in relief of Holtby) to make cut the lead to one at 2:42 of the final period.
While Carolina couldn’t get the equalizer, it did have the opportunity to play in just about every situation imaginable — power plays, penalty kills, 4-on-4, a two-man advantage and even an empty-net scenario — in its one exhibition before the real thing begins.
“Yeah, it’s definitely good to get all those things worked on in an actual game,” Trocheck said.
While Brind’Amour said a decision has not yet been made on who will start Game 1 against New York, James Reimer made his case by stopping all nine shots he faced in 26:05 of ice time.
“Those guys, I thought, were good,” Brind’Amour said of his goalies. “I think Reims coming in cold was really good. You know, that’s a tough task to come in when you haven’t any shots. So he was good. I thought Petr was good to do, so …”
So now we wait again.
The Rangers have decisions of their own to make — specifically in goal, where rookie Igor Shesterkin and Henrik Lundqvist were set to split time in New York’s lone exhibition Wednesday night against the rival Islanders.
After that, the Blueshirts’ focus will turn to the Hurricanes. Carolina’s has already shifted to their opponent.
“I think, realistically, all we wanted to get out of this game was to get the rust off,” Trocheck said. “We realize how we want to play hockey and realize what our identity was. And I think towards the end of the game, we started to realize that.”
“Hopefully,” Brind’Amour added, “the rust is off as we move on.”
Notes: With Dougie Hamilton out, both Joel Edmundson and Haydn Fleury had a chance to make a case for why they should be in the lineup Saturday. The two defensemen had nearly identical ice time (15:44 for Fleury; 15:35 for Edmundson), and Edmundson had three blocked shots but took two minor penalties and was minus-1, while Fleury was plus-1 — the only plus player for the Hurricanes — and played a team-high 5:22 on the penalty kill. … Steven Lorentz was the 13th forward because Martin Necas was unable to play, and Morgan Geekie centered the fourth line and won six of eight faceoffs. … Carolina won 33 of the game’s 50 faceoffs, led by captain Jordan Staal’s perfect 9-for-9 performance. … Aho was credited with a game-high four hits.