Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge

Adam Gretz
NBC Sports

For most of the 2018-19 NHL season the Carolina Hurricanes have been making headlines for what they have done after games.

Their Storm Surge celebrations after home victories has produced a wide range of responses from excitement locally and in the locker room, to some outrage and anger mostly north of the border.

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After their 4-0 win in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, arguably the Hurricanes’ best and most complete effort of the season, I asked forward Jordan Martinook what it would take for them to do a Storm Surge on the road, an act that would probably produce the most boiling hot takes hockey has ever seen (while also being wildly entertaining). He quickly responded with “that will not happen. I’m just putting that out there right now. We will not do that on the road. Only for the home fans.”

Hey, it never hurts to ask.

While the Storm Surges are fun thing to talk about and watch, and have definitely helped put a young, improving team in the spotlight more than it otherwise would have been, it is time we started to pay attention to what this team is doing during games.

Because it, too, is worth watching right now.

What they are doing is playing their way back into playoff contention.

They enter Thursday’s massive game against the Buffalo Sabres three points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and actually tied with the Sabres in the standings, making it a huge four-point game. A win in regulation would be a massive swing for either team in their quest to snap what is a lengthy postseason drought for both teams.

Lately, these are two teams trending in very different directions.

While the Sabres are in a bit of a freefall after a white-hot start that included a 10-game winning streak, the Hurricanes have been steadily climbing the standings thanks to an 11-4-1 run over their past 16 games.

One of the biggest developments for the Hurricanes in recent weeks has been the acquisition of forward Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Victor Rask.

For years the Hurricanes have been a team that’s been a sleeper pick because of their ability to dominate the shot charts and the possession game, but they’ve always fallen short of making the playoffs because their two biggest weaknesses have been goaltending and a lack of true finishers on the roster. If you can’t stop the puck and you can’t put the puck in the other team’s net you’re probably not going to win many games.

Rask’s 2018-19 season (and his 2017-18 one for, that matter) was pretty emblematic of the first weakness. For as good as he may have been helping to drive possession and making plays in the neutral zone he was never going to be somebody that was going to consistently finish or put the puck in the net.

Niederreiter will, and in his first couple of weeks with the Hurricanes has been one of their most productive offensive players having already scored five goals (along with an assist) in his first six games with the team. There is an argument to be made he has already been the difference in two wins during that stretch with a pair of two-goal efforts. It was a perfect addition for the Hurricanes because he not only gives them the type of player they needed right now in the short-term, but he is still signed for three more seasons after this one and is young enough to still be a part of this core that is built around Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and what is still a very young, talented defense.

While Niederreiter has given the offense a much-needed boost, the other big question that will determine how far this team goes is what they are able to get out of their goaltenders

Veteran Curtis McElhinney has, quite surprisingly, emerged this season as their best goaltender and carries a .918 save percentage into Thursday night after shutting out the Penguins. Whether or not he’s able to continue that level of play remains to be seen. He’s played well over the past few years in limited action, but he has only played more than 30 games in a season one time in his career and that was four years ago.

The Hurricanes have been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league for several years now but always seem to get burned because they haven’t had even adequate goaltending in net. They don’t need Carey Price or Andrei Vasilevskiy to be a top-tier defensive team.

Even decent, league average goaltending what probably give them that and help put them back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

In his limited action this season McElhinney has given them that level of play.

If he can continue to do so that development, combined with the addition of Niederreiter and continued development of Aho and Teravainen into top-line players, might at least give them a shot to make that happen this season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

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