As Andrej Nestrasil recovered from a fractured vertebra, the Carolina Hurricanes forward had one thought that drove him through months of physical rehab:
Scoring his next NHL goal.
Nestrasil’s 2015-16 season ended Feb. 25, when he was hit and fell awkwardly into the boards against the Toronto Maple Leafs. While missing the final 20 games, he was determined to be back in time for the start of the Canes’ preseason training camp in September, and he was.
But being back, to Nestrasil, meant scoring that first goal in the regular season. Only then would his recovery be complete, he said.
“That’s what I was thinking about every day for seven months,” he said Wednesday of the time leading up to training camp. “That kept me going, got me going every day. It was motivation for me.
“Scoring a goal is something different. It’s that feeling, when you do it, that’s a rush going through your body. There’s no better feeling.”
Nestrasil, 25, had to wait until the Canes’ 11th game, Sunday against the New Jersey Devils at PNC Arena. A healthy scratch in five of the first eight games of the season, the Czech Republic native had seven shots on net in the five games he was in the lineup.
Then, against the Devils, he had eight shots. And that first goal.
“I’ve never had eight, never, not even when I played midget or peewee,” Nestrasil said, smiling.
The goal came when Nestrasil went to the front of the net, banging a shot past Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid. The downside was that the Canes trailed 3-0 before his score, with seven minutes left in regulation, and the Devils won 4-1.
“To score another goal in the NHL is huge,” Nestrasil said. “I was going to celebrate hard after that goal but I thought, ‘It was 3-0 with whatever (time) left, so let it go.’ But that was a major point in my career, coming back from that injury.”
Nestrasil began the game on Jay McClement’s line opposite winger Joakim Nordstrom. But Canes coach Bill Peters switched the lines in the second period, putting Jordan Staal back at center with Nestrasil and Nordstrom.
During stretches of the Sunday game, and again in the Canes’ road game Tuesday against the Devils, the line produced the kind of heavy play in the offensive zone that was so effective last season. A good checking line, the three forwards maintained puck possession in the offensive zone and made the Devils work.
The Devils won Tuesday’s game 3-2 in a shootout, but Peters was pleased with what he saw of the Staal line.
“It’s coming,” Peters said Wednesday. “There in the third (period) I thought they were going to get the game winner. At 2-2, they had a shift where they were rolling around a couple of times. That’s what we need to see out of them.”
Nestrasil’s hope is that the line stays together and helps the Canes (3-5-4) put together a winning streak. Carolina has the next five games at home, beginning Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks, and must try to play its way back up the Eastern Conference standings.
“It’s time to dig in, right?” Peters said.
Before the injury last season, Nestrasil set career highs in points (23), goals (nine), assists (14) and games played (55). He’s in the second year of a two-year contract signed in June 2015, and will be a restricted free agent after the season.
“It’s my contract year and I want to prove to everyone I’m not damaged goods and I can play at this level,” Nestrasil said.
It’s time for him to dig in.