It had a little of the feel of Clemson making The Citadel its homecoming opponent in football.
The Carolina Hurricanes were in New York on Friday to play the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, but the Rangers also had other plans. They were feting their 1994 Stanley Cup champions in a lengthy pregame ceremony filled with Mark Messier’s tears.
Many assumed what would then unfold: goalie Henrik Lundqvist would again be in net for the Rangers, thus another Rangers win over Carolina. It was at the Garden, wasn’t it, where the Canes had not won since Jeff Skinner was a rookie and Paul Maurice the coach. The Garden was the Canes’ Death Valley.
But this one was different. It was different, in a sense, from the moment the Canes forward Saku Maenalanen -- coincidentally born in 1994 -- put a shoulder into the chest of Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei along the boards as Skjei hopped up to paw down the puck a little more than eight minutes into the game.
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It was hammering hit, clean and hard, and left Skjei on the ice. The Rangers’ Ryan Strome and others took exception, a scuffle ensued and both Maenalanen and Strome ended up in the penalty boxes. But both the hit and a point had been made.
Nor was Maenalanen through. With Lundqvist and Canes goalie Petr Mrazek matching saves and the tension building, no one had scored almost seven minutes into the third period before the Canes’ fourth line struck. On a rush into the Rangers zone, center Greg McKegg got the puck to Maenalanen on the right wing and Maenalanen made a perfect backhand pass to Warren Foegele between the circles for the shot and score.
“Great play, especially at that time of the game where somebody needs to do something,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
Foegele beat Lundqvist and soon the Canes beat the Rangers. Mrazek, in his best game of the season, turned back all 27 shots in a 3-0 victory that ended the Rangers’ 16-game winning streak over Carolina at the Garden.
Foegele, Canes fans have come to know. The winger made the team this year after a training camp filled with grit and hustle.
McKegg was a callup from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL as Jordan Staal struggled to recover from a concussion and has made his mark. In his first game with the Canes, McKegg was the game’s first star.
Maenalanen, 24, still is something of a mystery guy -- the tall, lanky Finn who wears No. 8. He’s quiet. He’s still learning English. He’s still finding his way in his first hockey season in North America.
“It’s a new world for him,” Canes forward Teuvo Teravainen said.
Signed as a free agent out of the Finnish elite league in May 2018, Maenalanen made his NHL debut for the Canes in December before being sent back to the Checkers. Recalled Jan. 1, the 6-4, 207-pound winger scored his first NHL goal against the New York Islanders a week later.
On Jan. 15, Maenalanen played his first game at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers won 6-2, another awful night for the Canes in New York, but Maenalanen scored both goals. Now, he has a victory at the Garden and is solidifying a spot in the lineup as the Canes (28-21-6) continue to surge.
“He’s a good player and he works hard,” Teravainen said. “He has all the skills. He’s a goal-scorer. He can play a two-way game and he’s strong. He has a little of everything.”
Teravainen and Maenalanen took different hockey paths in Finland. Teravainen, from Helsinki, was a big junior star and a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks who quickly made the move to North America and to the NHL.
Maenalanen was a fifth-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 20134. His decision was to stay in Finland, first in junior hockey, then in the Finnish pro league.
“I think it took him a little more time to get better,” Teravainen said. “He was always tall but now he’s getting more muscle and getting stronger. You could see he had the skill to be a good player but it took him a while and he has been working hard to get to this point.”
Maenalanen and the Canes’ Sebastian Aho share the same hometown and have been friends for years. They played in juniors together, played for Oulu Karpat in the Finnish Liiga. They played for Finland in the World Championship last year, where Maenalanen drew the interest of NHL teams before signing a one-year contract with Carolina.
Aho said Maenalanen stayed with him during the Canes’ preseason training camp, when Maenalanen caught the eye of Brind’Amour.
“He was winning his shifts,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s competitive.”
Caught in the numbers game at forward, Maenalanen began the season in Charlotte. Now, he has gotten in 18 NHL games -- with four goals and three assists -- and has a win over the Rangers in New York.
“I’m just working hard, skating hard, playing my own game,” Maenalanen said.
That’s what the Canes need, from everyone.
“He looks pretty comfortable,” Aho said. “It helps that he’s a big body who can skate. It really makes it easier for him. I think he’s doing it right. He’s not cheating on the ice, just working hard.”