The Hurricanes will host Columbus for the first time this season on Thursday, having beaten the Blue Jackets twice in their home rink by a combined 12-5 score — including New Year’s Day’s stunning come-from-behind 7-4 win.
The game comes after another prolonged break for the Hurricanes. Carolina last played Saturday, a 4-3 overtime loss in Florida, because Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia was postponed with the Hurricanes having already traveled north for the game.
The postponement frustrated the Hurricanes on multiple levels. The team was dumbfounded that the Flyers didn’t have to play with just a few players in the league’s COVID protocol. Carolina was further irritated when the team was told it would still be able to practice Tuesday morning — when it would have normally had a morning skate — only to discover the ice had already been covered with the basketball floor ahead of the 76ers game Wednesday with, coincidentally, the Charlotte Hornets.
On a grander scale, the team is exasperated with the start-and-stop nature of its season.
“I’m a little concerned we’ve been off for so long — again,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said following Thursday’s morning skate at PNC Arena. “It’s just really frustrating.”
Columbus will certainly be looking for some revenge after their embarrassing loss to Carolina on Jan. 1. Up 4-0 as the game neared its midway point, the Hurricanes got a goal from Steven Lorentz at 9:11 of the second period to get on the board.
The 911 was a harbinger of the emergency to come for the Blue Jackets as Carolina scored seven straight in a 7-4 win.
“We don’t want to get behind any team, especially by that much,” Brind’Amour said. “Starts are obviously crucial, but at the end of the day it’s about how you finish.”
The game will also be Jake Bean’s first time back in Raleigh since the team traded him to Columbus for a second-round pick during the 2021 NHL Draft.
With Jaccob Slavin in the league’s COVID protocol — he drove back to Raleigh from Philadelphia in a rental car to serve out his quarantine at home — Brendan Smith will return to the lineup and pair with Ethan Bear. Bear will also take on a bigger role, manning Slavin’s spot on the point of the second power play unit.
“It gives yourself a chance to have some fun and be more offensive and make plays, and that’s the fun part,” said Bear, who has logged a total of 6:19 on the power play this season. “Especially when you’re on a new team and you’re just trying to have fun and the team is winning, it feels good to be a part of everything.”
Even though Bear had minimal symptoms, perhaps no one on the Hurricanes had a tougher time with COVID. He was placed in the protocol Nov. 22 and forced to quarantine alone in a San Jose hotel. He then came back and was thrown into the fire without much time to get back up to speed.
“It was hard, especially when I got back,” Bear said Thursday morning. “Ten days in a hotel with all the restrictions and everything, and especially when you get back and there’s so many games and not much time to get any conditioning or hard practices in. (I was) thrown right into games.
“It took a while, honestly longer than I expected. But I’m feeling good now.”
Bear notched the game-winning goal in that wild 7-4 win in Columbus, his second goal of the season, and has seven points in 26 games with Carolina. All seven of those points have come at even strength. Maybe that changes Thursday.
The Hurricanes will look to extend their penalty kill streak to 10 games on Thursday. Carolina last allowed a power play goal on Dec. 7 in Winnipeg and has killed off 29 straight penalties — seven shy of the franchise record.
Here’s more on the penalty kill:
“Running around like chickens with their heads cut off doesn’t really do it.”
The Hurricanes penalty kill remains among the NHL’s best, a regularity since Rod Brind’Amour took over at coach.
A closer look at Carolina’s PK.https://t.co/9rRGpllWsw
— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) January 12, 2022
Goalie Jack LaFontaine, signed Sunday by Carolina, will dress as the backup Thursday.
It’s been a wild ride to the NHL for LaFontaine, who was drafted in the third round in the summer of 2016 by the Hurricanes before heading to Michigan to play for the Wolverines.
After two tough seasons there, LaFontaine went to the BCHL’s Penticon Vees before returning to the NCAA with Minnesota.
He thrived with the Golden Gophers and was college hockey’s top goalie last season with a 22-7 record, .934 save percentage, 1.79 goals-against average and five shutouts. With Carolina’s goaltending depth ravaged by injuries, the Hurricanes made a successful push to sign LaFontaine last week in the middle of his final collegiate season.
It had been a while since we’ve talked with LaFontaine in person — COVID has wiped out developmental camps the past two years, and as a college player he was not allowed to attend training camps because it would cost him his eligibility — but it’s clear the 24-year-old has grown and matured.
“He’s older. He’s not a young kid coming out of college,” Brind’Amour said Wednesday. “He’s been around, honed his craft, and I’m actually excited to see what he’s all about.”
LaFontaine alluded to having a “holistic” approach to life and hockey.
“That’s goaltending in a nutshell, right?” LaFontaine said Wednesday. “It’s between the ears. Everyone’s got their own phrase, their own motto, slogan, whatever you want to call it, and everyone needs to play at a specific intensity number. Everyone’s different, right? So for me, it’s all about being a little bit more calm and having a controlled intensity.”
It’s not a new way of thinking for LaFontaine.
“I really started to take a serious approach probably my sophomore year (2017-18) of college at Michigan,” LaFontaine said. “It’s something I’m never gonna have 100% knowledge in. I’m always learning every day — life, goaltending, whatever it may be.
“And for me, it’s always being open-minded and taking information from everyone. I mean, there’s no such thing as bad information.”
He was still sporting his University of Minnesota gear at the last two practices, and according to the team-provided game notes, he will wear No. 80. That will make him just the 19th player in NHL history to wear the number, nine of which wear goalies.
One of those goalies was the only other Hurricanes player to wear No. 80 — Kevin Weekes, who was nicknamed Shady 80 during his playing career.
Coincidentally, Weekes will be on hand Thursday because ESPN is broadcasting the game, with Weekes on the call as an analyst.
Speaking of TV, Bally Sports will not broadcast Thursday’s game but the team will still have its own radio call. Play-by-play man Mike Maniscalco will miss it — along with at least Saturday’s home game against Vancouver — after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. Shane Willis will step in to fill the void, with normal color analyst Tripp Tracy taking on an expanded role.