Kotkaniemi, Hurricanes close regular season with style

Kotkaniemi returned to the lineup and had a career-high three points to send Carolina into the postseason on a six-game winning streak

Hurricanes center Jesperi Kotkaniemi battles Devils defenseman Ryan Graves during Carolina's 6-3 win Thursday in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — In the 82nd and final game of the 2021-22 regular season, the Hurricanes’ No. 82 put on a show.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has three points in the first 13 minutes of the game, assisting on two goals and scoring the third, to vault Carolina to a 6-3 win over the visiting Devils in front of 18,040 Thursday at PNC Arena.

“It was nice to get a couple there early,” Kotkaniemi said. “It helps to gain confidence and get it back a little bit.”

Playing for the first time since aggravating an upper-body injury that has held him out of the lineup a combined 13 games since late March, Kotkaniemi assisted on first period goals by Ethan Bear and Martin Necas before scoring one of his own.

“That’s a that’s a nice way to get back in … yeah, he was good,” said Jordan Martinook, who played on a line with Kotkaniemi and Necas and scored a goal of his own in the third period. “He didn’t miss a beat, and it was good to click with those two.”

Kotkaniemi’s three-point first period set a new career high for points in a game. He had scored two points in a game 14 times in his career — four times this season with Carolina — before Thursday’s three-point effort.

The Hurricanes also got Antti Raanta back in net, a reality that seemed unlikely when he limped off the ice during Sunday’s game on Long Island. That opened the door for rookie Pyotr Kochetkov to earn wins in each of his first three NHL appearances.

But Raanta reestablished himself as the likely Game 1 starter when the Hurricanes open the postseason next week at PNC Arena, stopping 27 shots and, more importantly, coming away unscathed in his tuneup for the playoffs.

“It was a big thing to see him there tonight. He did a great job,” Kotkaniemi said. “It’s good to know he’s ready to go and play next week.”

The Hurricanes also clinched the William M. Jennings Trophy, given annually to the goaltenders for the team that allows the fewest regular season goals. Raanta and Frederik Andersen, who both played the minimum 25 games to be eligible for the award, backstopped a team that allowed 202 goals in the 82-game season, a 2.46 goals allowed per game average.

“It’s definitely a team award, but obviously you’ve got to have good goalies to have a good team,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “And I think it’s a good capper to the season.”

It’s a season in which Carolina set new franchise records for wins (54) and points (116) while claiming its first Metropolitan Division title and second division crown in a row after winning the Central last season.

“As proud of as we are of our regular season, what we accomplished, that kind of goes out the window come Game 1,” said Hurricanes forward Steven Lorentz, who scored his eighth goal of the season Thursday. “Everything we’ve done, worked for throughout the entire season — this is the show now and this is where guys will make their bread.”

Lorentz is one of several players who have made Brind’Amour’s decisions come the start of the playoffs difficult. Whether it’s Boston or Tampa Bay in Round 1 — that will be determined by Friday’s games — Brind’Amour has plenty of options for his lineup to start the postseason and as it grinds on.

“We’ve had those little tough decisions all year when we were healthy,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll have those again.”

Lorentz and Martinook each scored in the third period, and Derek Stepan extended his point streak to three games with an assist. All three have been shuffled through the lineup as Brind’Amour and his staff tried to keep everyone sharp throughout the season and now heading into the playoffs.

And now, with a season-ending six-game winning streak in hand, there’s another level to reach.

“Once Monday hits, it goes from here to here,” Martinook said while raising his hand toward the ceiling. “The jump is pretty substantial. I think we’re playing well, but obviously everybody can give a little more and that’s what you need for the playoffs.

“I have all the trust in the world that everybody in this room is going to juice up even more, and we’ll be ready to rock.”

Notes: Seth Jarvis made a magnificent move to set up Lorentz’s goal, earning an assist and extending his point streak to seven games. … Jaccob Slavin, who along with Jordan Staal and Andrei Svechnikov was given the night off, finished the season plus-35, tying Brett Pesce (2018-19) for the best mark in team history. … Brady Skjei had an assist to reach 39 points for the season, matching his career high set in his rookie season in 2016-17. … Kotkaniemi’s goal was his 12th of the season, a new career high. … Sebastian Aho had an assist to finish with 81 points, two shy of his career high. … Bear’s goal was his fifth, tying his career-best total with Edmonton in 2019-20.