Despite earning points in their last two home games, the Carolina Hurricanes clearly hadn't been playing their best hockey. As we count down the days until Christmas, the Canes entered the final week before the break with a huge test on their hands. The Vegas Golden Knights made their first trip to Raleigh as the defending Stanley Cup Champions in a game that would serve as a litmus test for a Canes team that has clearly been performing below expectations.
The Hurricanes were given a huge boost with the return of Andrei Svechnikov after he missed six games following a cross-check he received in Winnipeg to open the last road trip. He would slide back into the lineup as Tony DeAngelo was scratched. Pyotr Kochetkov got the start after another excellent start on Sunday in the Canes' 2-1 shootout loss to Washington. Logan Thompson would start opposite him for the Golden Knights.
Vegas came out firing to start the game, spending a lot of time in front of Pyotr Kochetkov. Jack Eichel, riding a ten-game point streak, had the game's first outstanding chance, but Kochetkov was sharp to deny the redirection. The Canes found themselves on the penalty kill early and were able to get a good chance short-handed to kill the penalty. It almost immediately led to a power play for the Canes, and they would deliver. Andrei Svechnikov wasted no time finding his second goal of the season, wiring a wrister from the right dot to get the team going. Vegas responded less than three minutes later. Brayden McNabb's initial shot was blocked, but it landed perfectly on William Carrier's stick as he tossed it into the net. A late penalty put the Canes back on the kill near the end of the period as they held strong to get into the intermission tied.
The second period was arguably the best period the Canes have played in a long time. It began with the Staal line connecting for the go-ahead marker. All three forwards touched the puck, but it was Jesper Fast's beautiful pass to a streaking Jordan Staal at the backdoor that would finish the play as the Canes took the lead early. Then, Jesperi Kotkaniemi broke out of a slump. His initial shot hit Jalen Chatfield and bounced right back to him before he snapped it over the blocker of Logan Thompson to make it a two-goal game. Andrei Svechnikov would draw a hooking penalty less than two minutes later, and Michael Bunting would score the team's second goal on the power play by putting home Sebastian Aho's rebound. The penalty kill would deny Vegas for a third time as the Caniacs rose to their feet to salute their team after 40 minutes.
With a three-goal lead over the defending champions, the Canes refused to take their foot off the gas. Andrei Svechnikov drew a high stick four seconds into the period. The power play needed six seconds to make it 5-1 as Seth Jarvis deposited a rebound into the net. Brady Skjei would add a sixth goal by knocking down a clearing attempt and sniping it over the glove of Logan Thompson to end his night early in the third period. The penalty kill would make it a perfect 4-for-4 night by killing a late penalty. Vegas would get garbage-time goals on a Jack Eichel deflection and William Carrier's second of the night to make it appear closer than it was, but the Canes thoroughly dismantled the Golden Knights in a 6-3 win.
From top to bottom, this might've been the team's best performance of the season. The two late goals will put a slight damper on what was otherwise a phenomenal game by the Hurricanes. 11 players found the scoresheet, led by three assists from Sebastian Aho to push him to 30 points this season, and Michael Bunting's goal and two assists. Brady Skjei added a goal and an assist from the defense. Pyotr Kochetkov played another stout game, coming up with some huge saves early before the offense exploded. The final goal of the night is likely one he'll want back, but the first two were an unfortunate bounce and a redirection.
As is often the case, special teams played an important role in the win. The Canes dominated both sides of the game in that aspect, going perfect on both the power play and the penalty kill. The kill that carried over into the second period was the most important of the game. Jesper Fast took a penalty with 1:18 left in a 1-1 game, and the kill stood tall to deny Vegas from getting any momentum. If the Golden Knights had scored before the intermission, this game could've gone in a different direction.
It's also not like the Hurricanes shut down Vegas' stars. Jonathan Marchessault had six shots. William Karlsson had five. Jack Eichel scored a goal to extend his point streak, and Mark Stone picked up an assist. The difference was that the Canes got better performances from their big guns. Sebastian Aho outperformed them all. Andrei Svechnikov returned to the lineup with a goal and five hits, including a huge one on Alex Pietrangelo. Seth Jarvis and Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored goals. The guys who needed to elevate their games against the defending champions did so in a big way.
Only two games separate the Hurricanes from Christmas Break. They'll be on the road in Pittsburgh on Thursday night for their second meeting with the Penguins. Then, the Canes will be at home on Saturday night to host the Islanders, who sit one point ahead of Carolina in the division standings. The team will get a three-day break before a back-to-back gets them going in the final week of 2023.