RALEIGH — With the holidays and their COVID troubles — at least for the time being — in the rearview mirror, the Hurricanes get back to action Friday after waiting five days between games.
Carolina is four points behind Tampa Bay for the most points in the league, but the Hurricanes’ 47 points have come in just 31 games — five fewer than the Lightning — and the team’s .758 points percentage is easily tops in the league. Saturday’s opponent, Florida, is second at .721.
The Hurricanes have played just twice in two weeks, and both those games — a Dec. 30th 4-0 home win over Montreal and the New Year’s Day’s come-from-behind 7-4 win in Columbus — happened in a three-day span.
Now Carolina will play five times in nine days, starting with back-to-back games at home tonight and Saturday against Calgary and Florida, respectively.
“You just want to get playing and kind of keep their machine rolling,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said before Friday’s game. “So we’ve got to get up to speed here. This layoff — I said it coming out of the last layoff, it looked a little rusty. And now we’ve had another layoff.
“That’s certainly not ideal, but we’re going to have to be ready to answer the bell right away here.”
It will be the Flames’ fourth game in six nights and they’ve lost two straight, including last night’s 4-1 loss in Tampa Bay. It’s weird to think the Hurricanes have played just six games since they previously faced Calgary — a 2-1 overtime win on the road nearly a month ago on Dec. 9. Sebastian Aho had both goals that night, and he has played just three times since that win.
“Our schedule has been not been ideal lately here,” he said. “Then again, we should be all rested up and ready to go.”
There is a lot of disappointment after the NHL pulled out of the Olympics. It’s a tough pill to swallow for any player who had a great shot at going to Beijing, and tougher for the players who might be missing their only chance to compete for their country on the Olympic stage.
Goalie Frederik Andersen and Denmark were set to make their first appearance in 75 years, and neither the country nor the 32-year-old is guaranteed a spot in four years.
For younger players, the opportunity will probably come again. That doesn’t mean they’re not discouraged.
“Of course, I was a little bit disappointed,” Andrei Svechnikov said of not getting to play for Russia. “I’m not sure if I was going to make the team — hopefully. But obviously it’s a little bit frustrating, but I think it’s understandable because there’s so many cases and all that kind of (poop) with the COVID. … Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard for sure.”
Martin Necas was expected to make Team Czechia, but now the almost 23-year-old will have to wait.
“You never know what’s going to happen in the future, and of course you want to go out there and play for your country in the Olympics, which is everybody’s dream since being a young kid,” he said. “Kind of the same as playing in the NHL.
“Yeah, it hurts, but what can we do, right?”
One final note on Czechia: Yes, that’s new, in a way.
“I heard it’s Czechia. Actually, I have no idea why,” Necas said with a laugh. “I don’t know. I’m from Czech, but I have no idea why we’re called Czechia now.”
It’s not a new country nor a new name for what North Americans have called Czech Republic, but the International Ice Hockey Federation officially updated the country name to Czechia (pronounced cheh·kee·uh) in December. It’s been used at times for years, but the change will probably stick in hockey circles now that that’s how the team will be referred to in international play.
Speaking of Necas, he’s found himself in a new spot on the power play, playing his off side on the top unit with Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Vincent Trocheck and Tony DeAngelo. That opens up the opportunity that we’ll see more of Necas’ one-timer from the left circle.
Martin Necas rifles a one-timer off of Marc Staal and into the net. Necas scores his first NHL playoff goal in his first NHL playoff game. The Hurricanes are up 3-1 in the third period over the Rangers. pic.twitter.com/esAcwfyNmL
— Brett Finger (@brettfinger) August 1, 2020
Necas scored plenty from this spot in the AHL, and it’s not a coincidence that it looks pretty familiar to Southeast/Metropolitan Division observers.
“(Alex Ovechkin) was my favorite player growing up, so I was always looking up to him,” Necas said. “There is nobody in the league who’s got a shot like Ovi, but we’re all trying to be as good as him.”
Necas said he’s very comfortable from that spot at 5-on-4.
“I always used to play there, especially in Charlotte I felt pretty comfortable there, and just trying to work on my shot every day,” Necas said. “The most important thing is just keep shooting. … I’m pretty comfortable there, and it’s time to score some goals from there.”
On top of it being a deadly weapon on the power play, it’s combined with the fact Necas has incredible vision and is just as likely to slap pass to an open player through the seam. That can be tough to defend.
“He can really shoot the puck … he can dish the puck, he can see the ice pretty well,” Aho said. “And also for entries, he’s a very good skater and has the ability to hang onto the puck.”
Jesper Fast seemed a bit surprised when it was brought to his attention that Friday would be his 500th career game.
“I didn’t think about that, but you’re right,” Fast said. “I’m very honored to be in this league for so long.”
Fast, in the second year of a three-year contract signed before the 2020-21 season, has been as advertised in his 77 games with the Hurricanes. His scoring is up a bit from his seven years with the Rangers (0.40 points per game compared to 0.35 in New York), which can mostly be attributed to a 17.1% shooting percentage since joining Carolina.
His ice time has been nearly identical (14:57 in Carolina, 20 seconds more per game than in New York), and he even got his first two career power plays goals since coming to Raleigh. He’s also one of only six players to have played in all 31 of the Hurricanes’ games so far, joining Teravainen, Trocheck, Jaccob Slavin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Yes, the “one game at a time” quote is a cliche, but when you listen to the Hurricanes’ players talk, they have bought into Brind’Amour’s carpe diem mentality.
Another part of that is not caring what obstacles are in the way. I asked Fast if it would mean a little more to face Calgary goalie and countryman Jacob Markstrom on Friday.
“You don’t try to think about who’s in goal or who you play against when you’re out there, just focus on doing the right things out there yourself,” Fast said.
I also asked Andersen if the game at Toronto being rescheduled — thus likely allowing him to start on the road against his old team after he was initially set to miss it while in the COVID protocol — was one silver lining to all the scheduling chaos that has occurred.
“I really don’t care,” he said. “It’s not in my thoughts right now.”
Aho summed it up best when he was asked if the coming schedule crunch could be a problem for a team whose identity is based on hard work and effort.
“Nope. Not at all,” Aho curtly answered.