Category 5: Hurricanes’ playoff tuneup

Hurricanes center Jesperi Kotkaniemi will return to the lineup Thursday against the Devils in Carolina's regular season finale. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

The Hurricanes end the regular season Thursday with a visit from the New Jersey Devils. While Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov and Jaccob Slavin will sit out the game — which has no impact on Carolina’s playoff position or opponent — two Hurricanes will return to the lineup.

1. Goalie Antti Raanta will get the start against the Devils after leaving Sunday’s game on Long Island with an injury and sitting out the last two.


“Got a little time to take a look at it, and it feels good being on the ice again and working hard and competing,” Raanta said, adding that he felt 100% healthy.

Rookie Pyotr Kochetkov filled in admirably in relief while Raanta rested up, winning all three games and posting a 2.42 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.

Raanta, who had compared the 22-year-old to fellow Russians Andrei Vasilevskiy and Sergei Bobrovsky after seeing him practice for the first time last week, was just as impressed after seeing Kochetkov in game action.

“He looks really comfortable in there,” Raanta said, “and you can see that his confidence is really high. It’s just great to see.”

With Frederik Andersen still not skating, Raanta will presumably start Game 1 of Carolina’s opening round playoff series. The 32-year-old Finn has played in five postseason games in his career but has never started one, coming on in relief in all those appearances.

He said he’s ready to take on the task.

“Absolutely. That’s the mental side of it,” Raanta said. “You never know what happens and, obviously, it’s tough to see your goalie partner going down and get hurt. He’s been probably one of the best goalies in the whole league the whole year. … I’ve been trying to work hard and whenever I got the chance to play, I’ve been trying to play as good as I can.

“I think there’s still one or two extra levels that I can do a little bit better. But day by day, one day at a time, one shot at a time, and that’s pretty much the mental focus right now.”

2. Also playing Thursday is fellow Finn Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who last played at Colorado on April 16 before aggravating an upper-body injury originally suffered on a late-game hit by Lars Eller in Washington on March 28.

The game should provide a good tuneup for Kotkaniemi before the playoffs start early next week.

“It always takes a little time to get back on the pace of the game,” Kotkaniemi said, “so it’s good to get one under the belt for the playoffs.”

Kotkaniemi said he’s “really pumped” for the postseason, and why not? He has 12 points — including nine goals — in 29 career playoff games and reached the Stanley Cup Final last season with Montreal. That included the game-winning overtime goal in Game 6 of the first round against the Maple Leafs last season. The Canadiens then won Game 7 in Toronto to fuel their run to the final two.

Kotkaniemi’s experience, despite being just 21 years old, could help the Hurricanes on a deep run.

“I think every time you go to the playoffs you learn something new,” Kotkaniemi said. “We had a good run last year — it was a long one. You learn to be ready every single game, every single minute in the game. If you sleep one second, the other team is going to score and you might lose the game.”

3. Another player returning to PNC Arena tonight is Dougie Hamilton. Hamilton signed a seven-year, $63 million contract with the Devils last offseason after spending three years in Raleigh.

It’s been a tough season for the defenseman, who missed more than seven weeks with a broken jaw and has nine goals and 20 assists in 60 games in his first season in New Jersey.

“I think he’s had a pretty good first season,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said Thursday afternoon. “Pretty tough ride, pretty tough injury. Before (the injury), the number of opportunities he was in offensively was probably higher. His post-injury and wearing the shield and the vision not being as good, I think there’s lots of factors that probably since post-injury hasn’t been as high quality as it was before.”

Hamilton missed the Devils’ previous game at PNC Arena — though he was in the building — so this will be his first game in Raleigh against his old team.

4. Carolina is locked in as the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed as the Metropolitan Division champion and awaits its opponent in the first round. Regardless, the first two games of the series — and the Eastern Conference semifinal, should the Hurricanes advance — will be played at PNC Arena.

The likely opponent is Boston, which trails Tampa Bay by three points for third place in the Atlantic Division with two games remaining for both teams.

Either way, the Hurricanes will get a chance to exorcise one of their playoff demons in Round 1. The Lightning eliminated Carolina in five games in the second round last season, while the Bruins knocked the Hurricanes out in both 2019 (four-game sweep in the conference final) and 2020 (fives games in the second round).

Carolina swept the Bruins this season, winning all three games by a combined 16-1 score, and were 2-0-1 against the Lightning, winning the only matchup in Raleigh and splitting two overtime decisions in Tampa.

5. Most people have known Tripp Tracy from his television analyst role, but he’s also become a social media star in the past couple years with his enthusiastic and positive posts along with his “Digging in with Tripp” podcast.

The podcast showcases how much reach Tracy has, with interviews with everyone from current stars Sidney Crosby, Aleksander Barkov and Sebastian Aho to legends Bobby Clarke, Scotty Bowman and Wayne Gretzky.

There’s a reason Tracy has the ear of so many of hockey’s biggest names: he’s approachable, warm, funny, compassionate and thoughtful.

He will be taking off the rest of the season and playoffs to “get healthy,” the team said in a statement Wednesday, and he has my full support, along with that of the Hurricanes, their fans and the entire hockey world.

Get well, Tripp. We’re all digging in right alongside you.