Category 5: Hurricanes prepare for 1st round vs. Islanders

The Carolina chapter of the PHWA voted Sebastian Aho team MVP and awarded Antti Raanta the Josef Vasicek Award

Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho was voted by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association as the team’s MVP for the 2022-23 season. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

The Hurricanes and Islanders will kick off the NHL’s postseason on Monday when the puck drops in Game 1 of their first round series at 7 p.m.

The two teams have met just once before in the playoffs, with Carolina sweeping New York in 2019’s second round to advance to the Eastern Conference final. This season, Carolina won three of four over the Islanders, including being the only team to beat New York goalie Ilya Sorokin three times in 2022-23.

1. As for the Hurricanes’ net, if anyone was looking for answers from coach Rod Brind’Amour on who would be his Game 1 starter, they came away disappointed.

“I don’t think we have a set plan,” the coach said Saturday. “I think we’ve got certainly an idea of how we want to do it, and hopefully, it sticks to that. But we’re pretty confident in both guys and we’re open to anything at this point.”

All that Brind’Amour confirmed was that it would be one of Frederik Andersen or Antti Raanta, which simply eliminates rookie Pyotr Kochetkov from the equation, at least for Game 1 — as we learned last year, playing your No. 3 goalie is a possibility in the postseason.

The arguments for Andersen and Raanta are pretty clear. Raanta had the better season, including being unbeaten at PNC Arena. Andersen was signed two seasons ago to be the No. 1 goalie and elevate the team in the playoffs.

Brind’Amour seemed to insinuate that he didn’t want to rotate the two goalies as he did in the final weeks of the season.

“I don’t want to say yes because it may or may not happen,” Brind’Amour said of both goalies playing in the first round. “And in fact, I hope it doesn’t.”

2. Raanta was the recipient of the Josef Vasicek Award, selected annually by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association for cooperation with the local media.

Known playfully as “Father Finn” for being the oldest of the team’s five Finnish players, Raanta has been one of the more talkative and friendly Hurricanes since coming to the team before last season.

“I just try to be as honest as I can after the game. Obviously I’m not telling all the secrets, but sometimes it feels like I’m telling everything,” the talkative, always-smiling 33-year-old said. “I think it’s just part of who I am, and I try to be as straightforward as I can.”

One secret Raanta didn’t spill was if he was going to be in net for Game 1.

“Roddy can tell you that,” he said with a laugh. “If he doesn’t tell me, then I don’t have to tell you.

3. For the fifth time in six years, Sebastian Aho was selected by the Carolina PHWA as the winner of the team’s Most Valuable Player award.

That’s pretty impressive considering he’s still just 25 years old. Aho’s 36 goals marked his fourth career 30-goal season, and he had a career-high 26 even-strength goals despite missing seven games during the regular season.

Aho, perhaps more than anyone in the Hurricanes locker room, is quick to deflect attention from his personal achievements to focus on the team — and he’s focused on winning the Stanley Cup.

“It’s the same expectation, same standard for us because we’ve been reaching for that goal for five years now,” he said. “But probably the media, you guys, fans, everyone’s (like), ‘OK, these guys have been in there five years straight.’

“We have the same core. We’ve got way more experience than five years ago. So maybe it’s more the outside thing that the expectations have gotten higher, other than for us for real.”

Winning it all is the goal, but it’s also avoiding the pain of losing.

“If some other team puts an end to your season, it hurts. It hurts bad,” Aho said. “So it’s just you don’t want to experience that, right? You don’t want to lose. You hate that so much. And the way it feels, it feels so bad. So kind of use that fire as a fuel, for sure.”

4. Two Hurricanes players will be making their NHL playoff debuts in the series.

Defenseman Jalen Chatfield and forward Jack Drury both saw time with the Hurricanes last season but were not part of Carolina’a postseason run.

They were, however, key pieces in the Chicago Wolves’ run to the AHL’s Calder Cup.

“Last year was the first year I really got to go on a run since being pro,” Chatfield said. “That took me five years, and I was lucky enough to win the AHL championship down there. So this year is no different. I’m excited, I’m ready to go. I’m ready to compete.”

Drury thrived in the Calder Cup playoffs, scoring nine goals and 24 points in 18 games. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster for Drury, who didn’t make the team out of camp. He was then called up but failed to score a goal in 21 games before being reassigned to AHL Chicago.

But Drury looked like a different player when he was again promoted following Andrei Svechnikov’s injury.

“I did a good job handling it mentally, I think,” Drury said of his up-and-down year. “Stay present and just continue to try to work on my game. You know, Brock Sheahan, head coach in Chicago, helped me a lot, as well as Sergei Samsonov, forward development coach.

“So I think just keep developing different offensive things in my game throughout this year. But I think that’s not really a year-to-year process, you build that up over a long period of time. So I think for me it’s the same mental approach, just one day at a time and try to improve as much as I can.”

5. Stefan Noesen was also a part of last year’s Calder Cup winners, posting a team-high 16 assists with nine goals, and now he’ll get a chance to return to the postseason at the next level. He does have NHL playoff experience, playing four games with the Devils in 2018, the last time New Jersey made the playoffs before this season.

“Obviously that was a long time ago now, and I’m a different player than I was then,” Noesen said Sunday.

How so?

“Just different situations,” he said. “I’m put in a little bit bigger role here than I think I was there. There I was more defensive-minded, 24/7 — really didn’t have that offensive-ness to my game.”

He did have the winning goal in Game 3 of the first round, breaking a 2-2 tie at 12:55 of the third period with a goal on Tampa Bay’a Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning won the next two games, with Noesen missing the deciding Game 5 with a lower-body injury.

The Hurricanes try to take care of their own end first, but Noesen has been in positions to produce this season, specifically on the power play. That allows him to combine smart own-zone play with his ability to be a net-front, in-the-trenches secondary scorer.

“Here we’re obviously very defensive-minded,” he said, “but the way that we play, the style we play, fits my game to a T. I think it sets up good for personal success as well as team success.”

And his feistiness and grit will be welcome in the postseason.

“I feel like I’m built for this,” he said.