For more than 35 minutes, the best storyline Friday in the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against the Columbus Blue Jackets easily was Greg McKegg.
Cool name, of course. And in his first NHL game with the Canes, the forward played well, picking up a goal and assist as Carolina took a three-goal lead in the gritty, tightly contested Metropolitan Division game at PNC Arena.
Then, in 25 seconds late in the second period, the focus shifted quickly. The Blue Jackets scored twice, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Artemi Panarin striking for goals, and suddenly the question was whether the Canes could hold on and win a third straight game, not whether McKegg might be tapped as the game’s first star.
The Canes did hold on, taking a 4-2 victory over the Blue Jackets as Sebastian Aho, recently named to the NHL All-Star Game, scored an empty-net goal in the final seconds to seal it. And, yes, McKegg was the first star.
Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton scored for the Canes (18-17-5) in the first period and McKegg in the second. McKegg assisted on Hamilton’s goal -- the defenseman’s second in two games -- and then scored with a redirection of a pass from Brett Pesce that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky could not handle.
“We came out great and I thought, to a man, were on it,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Obviously it helped again to get the lead. Every part of our game was pretty solid. But they’ve got a great team over there and you could see their high-end players took over for a couple of minutes and they got themselves back in the game, but I thought we came back in the third and played pretty well.”
It wasn’t McKegg’s NHL debut. The guy known as “Kegger” has played 91 games with Toronto, Florida, Tampa Bay and then the Pittsburgh Penguins before being traded by the Pens to the Canes for forward Josh Jooris in February 2018.
McKegg, 26, settled in with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate, waiting his turn with the big club. The call finally came Friday, when the Canes made him an emergency recall after an injury to forward Clark Bishop in Thursday’s game against Philadelphia and with center Jordan Staal being placed on NHL injured reserve.
“You just want to put your best foot forward and contribute any way you can,” McKegg said. “To cap it off with the win was pretty awesome.”
McKegg played on a line with Saku Maenalanen and Warren Foegle and by game’s end Brind’Amour was calling it “probably our best line overall.” Maenalanen assisted on Hamilton’s goal for his first NHL point and Foegele, coming off the game-winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, again played with high energy.
“They were the difference, no doubt,” Brind’Amour said. “They pretty much dominated every shift they had.”
McKegg’s goal, his first in the NHL since Nov. 4, 2017 with the Pens, proved to be the game-winner and ended the night for Bobrovsky, who faced 16 shots and made some sparkling saves early in the game.
In came Joonas Korpisalo and the Blue Jackets (23-14-3) began to play with more urgency and pace, hawking the puck and spending more time in the Carolina zone.
Canes goalie Curtis McElhinney was rock-solid until the final five minutes of the third, making sure-handed glove saves on blasts by Cam Atkinson and Zach Werenski. But Bjorkstrand found the net with a shot off the rush through a partial screen. Moments later Panarin jumped in to grab a loose puck in the slot and beat McElhinney for his 13th of the season.
In a flash, the Blue Jackets suddenly looked the part of a team that had won six of its last seven, and they continued to push in the third, especially Panarin. The Canes looked more like a team that played Thursday in Philadelphia, winning 5-3, and finishing up a back-to-back.
But the Canes maintained their poise. McElhinney, calm in net, closed with 22 saves for his ninth win of the season.
Ferland scored his 12th of the season -- and first since Nov. 21 -- with a one-timer just after a Canes power play ended. Hamilton’s goal came on a quick wrister from the top of the left circle.