Hurricanes catch Devils in tie for first in Metro Division

Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Staal (11) protects the puck from Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin (8) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Carolina Hurricanes’ Jordan Staal (11) protects the puck from Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin (8) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)


Never mind how they got here, which wasn’t the way anyone could have foreseen. Never mind who they’re missing, and have been for a while. The Carolina Hurricanes are tied for first in the Metropolitan Division, right where they thought they would be.

Not that it was a straight line to get here, by any means. Their path has been as zig-zaggy as their batty travel itinerary, something else they have endured and overcome.

But for all the hand-wringing over goal scoring, for all the injuries, nothing has stayed these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

If you were to be told in August that Teuvo Teravainen wouldn’t score his first goal until mid-December; that Frederik Andersen would miss seven weeks (and counting), leaving Pyotr Kotchetkov to play meaningful games; that Max Pacioretty would still be waiting to play his first game in this uniform, you’d probably be worrying about who the Hurricanes are going to dump at the trade deadline, not how they might play fancy cap games to squeeze a late addition onto the roster.

It’s been this kind of season: Sebastian Aho has missed five games, and the Hurricanes have won all five of them after Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, a win that extended their point streak to 11 games while snuffing the Penguins’ winning streak at seven.

These are the weird things that happen during the serialized Dickens novel that is an 82-game NHL season, rarely following the itinerary sketched out before it begins, and such travails have derailed lesser Hurricanes teams, or at the least put them under pressure to pick up the pace.

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov (52) eyes a deflected puck during the third period of the Hurricanes’ 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. Associated Press

There’s none of that now. While the Andersen situation appears to be the same as it was during the playoffs last spring — he’ll return to the net when he’s good and ready to return to the net — there’s no reason to rush him. He still gives the Hurricanes their best chance at winning the Stanley Cup, so they might as well let him return to peak physical and mental condition at his own pace.

The fourth line is scoring goals, Martin Necas is playing with the confidence of a superstar — he nearly scored from between his own legs Sunday — Kotchetkov is playing with the confidence of someone who doesn’t know any better and Jordan Staal can still squeeze the drama out of a narrow late lead when the Hurricanes need him to do just that.

Aho, Teravainen, Andersen out? No problem. Jaccob Slavin takes penalties at an unprecedented rate? (He’s up to six — 6! — minutes now.) No problem. There are obviously areas for real and necessary improvement — a combined 12 goals from Teravainen, Seth Jarvis, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Paul Stastny isn’t cutting it, given the opportunities they have and the responsibility they’re given — but so much of what could gone dramatically wrong has been alleviated by Necas’ improvement, by the steadiness of the Hurricanes defense and Kotchetkov’s emergency elevation.

They may not score a lot of goals, especially given the chances they create, but they’re scoring enough — and surely they’ll finish more of those chances at some point.

“I’m proud of the group,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “They’re tired for sure, mentally. A lot of games and obviously we’re missing a lot of pieces. We’re getting a lot of contributions.”

Sunday was a great example of that. With the Hurricanes only 22 hours removed from a home overtime win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday, they were nearly blown out of their own building in the first five minutes, much to the delight of the Penguins fans who made the drive in from Cary.

But Kotchetkov played with unusual calm and made one huge save on Ryan Poehling, keeping the Hurricanes in the game. And down a goal early in the third, Staal’s line plugged away, hemming the Penguins in their own zone and creating a pair of goals — one from Brady Skjei, one from Staal — before securing the win with four straight faceoff wins in the final minute and the Pittsburgh net empty.

It was a big-time win for a team that has another test waiting. The Hurricanes have now caught the hot-starting New Jersey Devils in the Metro, but the Devils are here Tuesday with first place on the line.

It’s where the Hurricanes always expected to be, even if this isn’t how they expected to get here.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered six Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He is the current president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was the 2020 winner of the National Headliner Award as the country’s top sports columnist and has twice been named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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