Irbe quickly came in and supplanted Kidd as the team’s starter, seeing action in 62 games during the 1998-99 season. This marked the most games played for the Latvian goalie in 5 years and he made the most of it. His 27 wins marked the second-highest total of his career at that point while he set career-best numbers in goals-against average (2.22), save percentage (.923), and shutouts (6).
Irbe was selected for the 1999 NHL All-Star Game, serving as one of the three goalies for the ‘World’ team. While his team lost the game, Irbe became the first goaltender in All-Star history to record a point, earning an assist on a second period tally by Teemu Selanne.
His performance helped the Hurricanes win their division, earning them their first postseason appearance and cementing Irbe’s position as the team’s number one goaltender. A six-game opening-round loss dampened the mood, but the team was poised to move forward with their Latvian savior in net.
The team’s first season in Raleigh saw Irbe appear in 75 games, the highest total in his career at that point. The workhorse put up 34 wins—another career-best—though his goals against (2.42) and save percentage (.906) took a dip. The Hurricanes dropped two points in the standings, enough to keep them out of the playoffs.
The 2000-01 season saw Irbe set a new high water mark in games played (77) and wins (37) while matching his career-high in shutouts (6). The Hurricanes returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ultimately suffering another six-game, first-round loss.
The Carolina Hurricanes had yet to advance past the opening round of the playoffs, though Irbe had been a constant for them in net while setting career and franchise records. As the team prepared to embark on what would be their most successful season to date, Irbe’s play was about to begin a troubling trajectory.