RALEIGH — Even some of the Hurricanes fans gave a standing ovation after Detroit goalie Alex Nedeljkovic posted a 46-save shutout in just his second game back in Raleigh since Carolina traded him in the offseason as part of its crease overhaul.
It was more an appreciation for the five seasons Nedeljkovic spent as the team’s presumed “goaltender of the future” than a longing to have the 26-year-old back protecting the Hurricanes’ net.
Nearly eight months ago, the feelings were different. Nedeljkovic was coming off a remarkable season that included a third-place finish in Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s top rookie when he was traded to the Red Wings for a third-round pick.
Fast-forward to this spring and the Hurricanes have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL on the backs of two new goalies, veterans Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta.
That has certainly helped the fans forget about Nedeljkovic, and Carolina even parlayed the pick they got from Detroit for the goalie into a deadline addition when they traded last year’s 94th overall pick, defenseman Aidan Hreschuk, to Columbus for forward Max Domi.
But things got more complicated Saturday in Colorado when Andersen — who has carried the bulk of the goaltending load — suffered a knee injury late in the Hurricanes’ 7-4 loss to the Avalanche.
The team said Andersen, who is 35-14-3 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .922 save percentage with four shutouts this season, would be reevaluated next week. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Andersen’s MRI came back negative, providing a glimmer of hope with just five games left in the regular season.
Not that the Hurricanes are overly worried.
The restructuring of Carolina’s depth chart also included Raanta, who has been a proven starter in the league but has struggled with injury struggles of his own in the past.
He’s been mostly healthy this season and welcomes the chance to take on an even bigger role.
“I think every goalie wants to play,” said Raanta, who is 13-5-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .912 save percentage with two shutouts. “When you get a few games in a row, get a couple good games, it just builds your confidence and you start playing more with your instincts.”
And coach Rod Brind’Amour is confident in Raanta as well.
“It’s been proven — both guys have had a good year and been solid for us,” Brind’Amour said of his tandem. “It’s unfortunate. Injuries are part of it. So that’s why you have depth, and that’s about all you need to say about it.”
The Hurricanes have had to tap into their goalie talent pool this season, signing Jack LaFontaine to shore up their minor league depth chart earlier in the season and bringing prospect Pyotr Kochetkov over from Russia after his KHL season ended.
The 22-year-old Kochetkov — who was drafted with the 2019 second-round pick acquired when Carolina traded Jeff Skinner to Buffalo in the summer of 2018 — has made himself at home with the team’s AHL affiliate, going 13-1-1 with a .921 save percentage and 2.09 goals-against average for the powerhouse Chicago Wolves.
Now, with normal No. 3 goalie Alex Lyon injured, Kochetkov will slide into the No. 2 spot in Raleigh while Andersen recovers.
“He’s played really well,” Brind’Amour said of Kochetkov, “but Lyon was hurt. … Sometimes your decisions are pretty much ‘there is no decision.’”
It’s made for a whirlwind two months for Kochetkov, who made his first AHL start Feb. 19 and now finds himself close to making his NHL debut.
The Penza, Russia, native — who is still learning English — has let his play do the talking for him while also showing some fire during his brief time in North America.
And in Raleigh, there’s at least one familiar face to help him on his journey.
“We played (together) when he was when he was 15 years old,” Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov said. “We played with him a few games and he actually moved to my club and played there for one year and, obviously, I know him.”
Svechnikov, however, doesn’t think Kochetkov needs much guidance outside of help with adjusting to life in North Carolina.
“I wouldn’t say I would give him any advice,” Svechnikov said. “He’s been in the pros for a few years. He doesn’t know any English and I tried to help him with that, just those little things to try and help him.”
While the spotlight will remain mostly on both Raanta and Andersen’s health, Kochetkov should get a chance to showcase himself as the new goalie of the future.
He certainly made a good first impression on Raanta.
“It looks like it’s a little mix of (Andrei) Vasilevskiy and (Sergei) Bobrovsky, what we saw there,” Raanta said of comparing Kochetkov to two of the NHL’s top Russian-born goalies following the rookie’s first practice with the team Monday in Arizona.
“So that’s a good mix there. … You wouldn’t know that’s he’s only 22.”