Carolina Hurricanes: On fire heading into All-Star break

VANCOUVER, BC - JANUARY 23: Carolina Hurricanes Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (39) is congratulated by Defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) after their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on January 23, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Carolina won 5-2. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
VANCOUVER, BC - JANUARY 23: Carolina Hurricanes Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (39) is congratulated by Defenceman Trevor van Riemsdyk (57) after their NHL game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on January 23, 2019 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Carolina won 5-2. (Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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The Carolina Hurricanes head into the NHL All-Star Game break in fine form. But can they push on from here and secure their first playoff spot in ten years?

Last night saw the Carolina Hurricanes finish on a high before the NHL All-Star Game break. The Canes demolished the Vancouver Canucks 5-2 at Rogers Arena, and in so doing broke a near-20 year-old “curse”, spanning ten games, three decades and two millenia. There were several strong performances last night, so many that it’s hard to limit ourselves to just three takeaways.

Before we look at individuals, we have to start by applauding the Carolina Hurricanes for standing up to the Vancouver Canucks. Both Erik Gudbranson and Antoine Roussel attempted to start fights, but the Canes jumped in and stopped things getting out of hand. Seeing some of our veterans stick up for Andrei Svechnikov showed just how close-knit this team is.

1. Nino Niederreiter is good at scoring goals

Nino Niederreiter continued to charm his way into the hearts and minds of Carolina Hurricanes fans everywhere, with two more goals to make it four in four games since arriving from the Minnesota Wild. While we all liked Victor Rask, this is really turning out to be a fantastic trade by Don Waddell. He’s also a very humble person:

"“It’s definitely a lot to take in but, at the same time, I know how good Aho is and [Justin] Williams is,” Niederreiter said of his new linemates. “They are great playmakers, and for me, it’s just trying to find the open ice and like tonight a terrific pass by Aho and I had a chance to do the rest.”"

Is there a Carolina Hurricanes fan out there who doesn’t think El Nino can be a 35-goal scorer on Sebastian Aho’s wing? His career-high is 25 goals, back in 2016/17 – does anyone bet against him scoring 13 goals in his last 32 games to top that? He’s been one of the very best acquisitions in years during his opening four games – any semblance of the same performance for the remainder of the season, and this team is going to be rolling. His acquisition has allowed Coach Rod to balance the scoring lines which, while disappointing a legion of Aho-Turbo fans, has given the team a more dangerous edge. Long may it continue.

2. Alex Nedeljkovic should be in the NHL next season

Making your full NHL debut at the age of 23 wouldn’t normally be a ringing endorsement of a player’s potential, but goalies traditionally take longer to become NHL-ready. Alex Nedeljkovic has waited a long time to make his full Carolina Hurricanes debut, after making 17 saves on 17 shots in relief of Cam Ward in January 2017.

Last night was therefore the perfect night for Nedeljkovic to pull out one of his very best games. Facing a young, playoff-hungry team full of players who can rip the puck, Nedeljkovic stopped 24 of 26 shots for a .923% save percentage. His saves kept the score down, and the Canes offense did the rest.

In playing so well and winning such a key game for the Carolina Hurricanes, there is no doubt that Nedeljkovic has ensures that he will be the first callup from Charlotte if either Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney pick up an injury. With both current Canes goalies impending UFAs, his performance last night has surely guaranteed him the backup role with the Canes next season.

Alex – you were well worth the wait.

3. Greg McKegg has more heart than a butcher’s shop

When Jordan Staal went down, Canes fans were wondering how Rod Brind’Amour would fill his immense presence in the team’s middle six. Not many fans expected the Canes to call up Greg McKegg, never mind see him score as much as he has done or produce as much effort as he has done. The Canes had other options at center – hot prospect Martin Necas, previous callups Nicholas Roy and Janne Kuokkanen – but McKegg’s NHL experience was preferred for what at the time we expected to be a short stint with the Canes.

There’s very little doubt that McKegg’s performances contributed to the Canes moving Victor Rask; he had already pushed Rask down to the fourth line, and he’s making a case to stay with the team for the rest of the season. Michael Smith spoke with Don Waddell last week, who gave this comment on how McKegg had impressed the back office:

"His response: “Probably what gave us the benefit was that McKegg has come up and done a real good job for us. … Where we were using Victor right now, we could replace that position, and this would enhance our top-six guys.”"

Last night McKegg had another goal, plus an assist, to make it three goals and three assists in just 11 games. This kind of depth scoring was completely lacking earlier in the season – and it’s part of why the Canes are suddenly in the playoff mix. Not bad for a guy who had played for five different NHL teams before making his 100th career appearance.

Where the Canes stand heading into the All-Star Game break

After going 2-0-1 on their Western road trip, the Carolina Hurricanes come into the NHL All-Star Game break in excellent form. Over their last 13 games they have a 9-3-1 record, and their 54 points is good for 16th in the entire NHL. Yes, this team has more points than the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks.

The Canes sit four points outside a wildcard spot, albeit having played two games more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hold that last spot. The Canes may have had an 8-3-1 record in January, but the crucial spell of games takes place in early February. In the space of ten days the Carolina Hurricanes face Eastern Conference rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators. All on the road. All do-or-die games. Rod Brind’Amour has a week to plan for those games – let’s hope he’s ready.

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The Carolina Hurricanes can reset, recharge their batteries, and come out of the All-Star Game break roaring. Their results coming off extended rest days aren’t fantastic – but with the form the team is in, and the passion Rod Brind’Amour is showing, who is going to bet against this team continuing their rise up the standings and securing a playoff spot?