Maturing Hurricanes eye second-straight playoff berth

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes ended a nine-year postseason drought last season.

This year, their goal: to end an even longer one.

The Hurricanes are looking to reach the postseason for a second straight year – something they haven’t done in 18 years.

Carolina advanced to the Eastern Conference final last season before Boston swept the Hurricanes. That deep run gave a largely young team a taste of the postseason, after only a handful of players had any playoff experience entering that first-round series with Washington.

”It’s a whole new year, so what’s done is done,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said, ”and you’ve got to move on and you’ve got to find a way to be that much better.”

And find a way to avoid the playoff hangovers that have plagued this team in the past.

In the three seasons that followed their three most recent playoff appearances – 2003, ’07 and ’10 – Carolina’s point total has dropped by an average of 26.7 points. The Hurricanes finished last in the old Southeast Division the year after making the 2002 Stanley Cup final, and wound up third in the five-team division after both the 2006 Cup title and the run to the 2009 conference final.

WHO’S HERE

The Hurricanes didn’t make many flashy acquisitions during the offseason, instead sprinkling some solid veterans throughout the roster. They re-signed free-agent goalie Petr Mrazek to a two-year contract, picked up James Reimer as his likely backup, brought in center Ryan Dzingel for two years and gave defenseman Jake Gardiner a four-year deal shortly before camp.

Their most significant move was keeping one of their young stars – Sebastian Aho. Less than 24 hours after Montreal tendered him a $42 million offer sheet, they matched the deal and signed the 22-year-old restricted free agent to a front-loaded, bonus-heavy contract that locks him up through 2023-24.

”I think we assembled another solid team, and I think had some good additions,” forward Jordan Staal said. ”I think we’ll be a team that’s, obviously with Roddy, going to be one of the hardest-working teams, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got every game, and that’s going to give us an edge.”

WHO’S NOT

Justin Williams – for now, anyway. The captain of last year’s team said he was taking a break from the sport to start this season, but left the door open to the possibility of a midseason return. Carolina also traded defenseman Calvin de Haan to Chicago and let forwards Micheal Ferland (Vancouver) and Greg McKegg (New York Rangers) and goalie Curtis McElhinney (Tampa Bay) leave via free agency. They also cut ties with Scott Darling, sending him to Florida in the Reimer trade.

KEY PLAYERS

All eyes will be on Aho, especially during the opener – which, coincidentally, comes against the very same Canadiens team that tried to pry him away. He isn’t worried about handling the pressure that comes with that big contract won’t be a problem, and says he doesn’t set his goals in terms of goals or points: ”I just want to be a better player,” said Aho, who had team highs of 30 goals and 83 points last season.

Keep an eye on Reimer, too. Mrazek and McElhinney were almost interchangeable last season, pairing to give the Hurricanes a solid one-two combination in both the regular season and playoffs. A key question: Can Reimer seamlessly slide into that No. 2 role while bouncing back after a season in which he matched his career worst save percentage (.900)?

OUTLOOK

It’s been a challenge over the past two decades for the Hurricanes to build upon their successes. A key to doing so this season might come with the man advantage. Carolina scored on less than 10% of its postseason chances on the power play – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. Dzingel, Erik Haula and Gardiner should help with that.

PREDICTION

The Hurricanes went 46-29-7 last season and their 99 points ranked second in team history only to the 2006 Cup champions, and their 31-12-2 regular season record after Jan. 1 was no fluke. Aside from Williams, the core of that team – chiefly Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, star-in-waiting Andrei Svechnikov and virtually the entire defensive unit – is back and a year more mature. It might be too much to expect another run to the East final, but a second straight playoff berth is very much within reach.

The Buzzer: Stars Wars Storm Surge; Bob beats Blue Jackets

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes

Heading into Saturday, Aho only scored in one goal (a goal and an assist) in his past five contests. He made up for that dry spell in a big way against the Wild, generating a hat trick plus two assists.

His third goal was an empty-netter, but Aho’s first tally ended up being the game-winner. Aho was really clicking with Teuvo Teravainen, who finished the night with three assists.

Aho now has 27 points through his first 30 games in 2019-20.

2. Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning made life miserable for the Sharks on Saturday, feasting by way of a 7-1 score.

Killorn was a big part of that, generating a goal and three assists for four points. Killorn now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game streak, giving Killorn 22 points in 25 games in 2019-20.

As effective as Killorn has been over the years, his career-high is 47 points. Chances are, he’s going to slow down (example a 15.7 shooting percentage so far this season, against a 10.5 career average), but if reasonably healthy, Killorn should blow that previous number out of the water.

There were other Lightning players who played really well, as you’d expect from a blowout. Steven Stamkos ranked among those who collected three points, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 37 saves to exaggerate the distance between the two teams.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Really, you can take your pick between Malkin and Jake Guentzel, as they both enjoyed one-goal, two-assist nights on Saturday, and they both clearly play off each other quite well. As much as Guentzel has been conjoined to Sidney Crosby during his young (and underappreciated) career, it seems like he can click with Malkin, too. Obviously, it’s not difficult to transition from one “NHL 100” player to another who should have made the “NHL 100,” yet … we’ve seen wingers who cannot find chemistry with one or more of Malkin and Crosby. So credit to Guentzel for being deadly with both, and likely making life a little easier for each of them.

Malkin now has a fantastic 26 points in just 19 games, and may very well have his biggest year in a while if he can stay healthy — an uncomfortably familiar phrase for the Penguins for quite some time. (Heck, even spanning back to Mario Lemieux.)

Guentzel now has 31 points in 30 games, and a solid chance to exceed last season’s excellent career-high of 76 points.

Highlight of the Night

Uh, you think the Kings were expecting Johnny Gaudreau to pass when he did? (Don’t lie.) This is just a tremendous combination of speed, skill, and vision as he set up Sean Monahan:

Star Wars Storm Surge

Yay or nay on the Star Wars-themed Storm Surge from the Hurricanes? I’d say solid enough, although it lacked a Bunch of Baby Yoda so … maybe not ideal.

Factoids

  • The Blue Jackets spoiled Sergei Bobrovsky‘s shutout bid a bit more than halfway through the third period. Still, Bob had a strong night with 33 saves. Hot take: Columbus is still probably relieved to not be spending to the tune of Bob’s $10M AAV, considering how infrequently Bob has looked this good.
  • NHL PR notes that the Avalanche extended a point streak to 14 games, while they also gave the Bruins their first regulation loss at home this season.
  • Brady Tkachuk received a fine from the Department of Player Safety for cross-checking Scott Laughton. More on that wild game here.
  • A bit esoteric, but interesting, from NHL PR: Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are the fifth pair to generate at least 300 points each in 320 games or fewer. They’re the first pairing to pull that off since Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

Scores

PHI 4 – OTT 3
VAN 6 – BUF 5 (OT)
COL 4 – BOS 1
PIT 5 – DET 3
TBL 7 – SJS 1
FLA 4 – CBJ 1
CAR 6 – MIN 2
TOR 5 – STL 2
NSH 6 – NJD 4
DAL 3 – NYI 1
CGY 4 – LAK 3

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

P.K. Subban gets a warm tribute during his return to Nashville

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It would have been silly for Nashville Predators fans to boo P.K. Subban during his return to “Smashville.”

Subban didn’t choose to be traded from Montreal to Nashville, and he didn’t elect to be sent from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils, either.

Sports fans aren’t always so rational, though. Really, it makes sense: spending so much money, time, and emotional energy on a game isn’t exactly the most rational thing to do. So there was some concern about how Subban would be received, especially since he’s already booed in an honestly uncomfortably large number of NHL arenas already.

Subban and others can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as while not everyone greeted Subban with open arms in as literal a way as Roman Josi did with their hug on Saturday, the team gave Subban a fantastic welcome back tribute video:

Not only does that video include some of Subban’s great moments during his three seasons with the Predators (that Stanley Cup Final appearance, a Norris Trophy win), it also captures some of the off-the-ice qualities that make Subban so fun and entertaining (and make people sometimes get perplexingly, maybe troublingly mad about him). He got up and decided to sing some Johnny Cash upon arriving in Nashville, was a fantastic charitable presence, and was a lot of fun.

(No Listerine was spilled in the making of the ad, but you can’t have it all.)

Anyway, good on the Predators and their fans for welcoming P.K. back.

As a reminder, Montreal Canadiens fans greeted him with love upon his return, too:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs’ rising star Cale Makar shaken by hit from Bruins’ Marchand

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The Colorado Avalanche have done a masterful job, for the most part, when it comes to rolling with injury-related punches to key players such as Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. They have to hope that Saturday didn’t send another such haymaker their way.

Rising star defenseman Cale Makar (who just fell under a point per game on Saturday with 28 in 29 contests) was clearly shaken up by a hard hit by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.

It didn’t seem like a heinous hit by Marchand, although there are some who wonder if it was a bit high.

Either way, Makar’s reaction is troubling. You can see him shake his head multiple times following the hit, which gives the impression that he could have suffered a concussion. That doesn’t guarantee that Makar did, but it’s a situation to watch — and one the Avalanche should absolutely be careful about.

The Avalanche ended up beating the Bruins 4-1 on Saturday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Laila Anderson, bone marrow donor attend Blues game

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If it got a “little dusty” at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis on Saturday, that’s understandable, because the continued story of Laila Anderson meeting Kenton Felmlee, her bone marrow donor, is sure to make most get a case of heightened allergies.

(Is that a leak from the ceiling? /Sobs)

Anyway, Felmlee was Anderson’s guest during Saturday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – St. Louis Blues game, giving the two another chance to bond, and beyond that, for Anderson to thank Felmlee for helping her in her battle with the rare immune disease HLH.

It’s great stuff, even if the actual Blues game isn’t going so great for St. Louis.

This longer clip from their first meeting earlier this week is worth watching, unless you don’t want people to see you openly weeping’n’stuff:

(Personally, I’d say it’s worth it.)

MORE ON LAILA ANDERSON AND THE BLUES:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.