Hurricanes, Raleigh again prove worthy of NHL’s biggest stage

Nearly 57,000 fans packed Carter-Finley Stadium for Carolina's 4-1 win over the Capitals

Carter-Finley Stadium proved to be a perfect host for the Hurricanes' Stadium Series game against the visiting Capitals. (Stan Gilliland / For the North State Journal)

RALEIGH — It’s been a while since the Carolina Hurricanes have been able to show off at a big event.

At Saturday’s Stadium Series game at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium, the team — in its 25th season in North Carolina since relocating from Hartford — reminded the hockey world that it puts on as good of a show as any team in the NHL.

The result — a 4-1 win over the visiting Washington Capitals — was simply the cherry on top of an event that was postponed due to the pandemic but proved to be a triumphant victory for the Hurricanes, the Triangle and hockey in the Sunbelt.

“We talked before the game that we had a chance to create an awesome memory,” center Sebastian Aho said, “and we did. For us players, the whole organization, the fan base, the whole city — it’s awesome.”

There were concerns in the lead-up to the game about weather, traffic, ice conditions and the later-than-expected opening of the parking lots. But when the players lined up for the opening faceoff, the grills and smokers in the lots were out, the stands were full of 56,961 fans, and the temperature — in the low 40s — proved perfect for an outdoor game.

If the ice was an issue, it didn’t appear to be a problem for Martin Necas, who first showcased his speed and then dazzled the crowd with a backward-skating, between-the-legs effort that didn’t result in a goal but drew a penalty and the awe of the crowd.

“I felt like it was almost better than some rinks where we play usually,” Necas said. “It didn’t really feel like we were playing outside. It was better than the standard, I would say.”

And even if the ice — which was much improved compared to Friday evening’s rain-delayed practice — wasn’t quite that good in everyone’s eyes, they found ways to look past that.

“You score a goal,” said Aho of Necas, “it makes the ice a little better.”

Necas’ goal came on a one-timer from the left circle just before the midway point of the game, a shot that was eerily similar to the ones Alex Ovechkin — the Capitals captain who missed the game following the death of his father — has scored several times against the Hurricanes. Necas followed that with an assist on a 2-on-1 with Teuvo Teravainen, and the rout was on.

“They played at a different gear,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said, “and then they won most of the battles.”

Despite the chilly temperature, the crowd won its fight with the cold weather and provided an electric atmosphere.

Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, was cool as could be.

The Hurricanes goaltender allowed one goal on 25 shots, avenging his 2018 Stadium Series loss to the Capitals in Annapolis, Maryland.

He said in the weeks before the Stadium Series game that his favorite of the three outdoor games he had experienced was at Dodger Stadium in 2014 with Anaheim. That day, Andersen watched from the bench as his goalie partner Jonas Hiller shut out the Kings.

After Saturday, he has a new favorite.

“I think this one’s tough to beat,” he said. “Just the anticipation around here, the fan base — they deserved this for a long time. They showed up tonight and just performed as well as we did on the ice, so it’s cool to be able to reward them with a win.”

Necas in particular found yet another level again in his breakout season, finishing with three points and further solidifying the faith Brind’Amour has in the 24-year-old.

“We all knew it was there, and now he’s really starting to show it,” Brind’Amour said. “It was great for him to show it on a big stage.”

It was a stage that Raleigh proved, yet again, to be worthy of being on.

“It was something that all of us won’t ever forget,” Necas said. “And, obviously, when you get the win, it feels much better. You know every second of it was a time you enjoy. You try to focus on the game, but you still feel that the fans and the energy.

“It was my first outdoor game and it was unbelievable.”

The coach agreed.

“Not having experienced one of those,” Brind’Amour said, “I don’t how it could be much better.”