As the games begin to count down in the NHL season, there will be times when a team’s mental and physical toughness will be tested. Games become a test of wills.
So it was Friday as the Carolina Hurricanes faced off against the Edmonton Oilers at PNC Arena. The Canes won 3-1, getting two goals from Nino Niederreiter and another sparkling game from goalie Curtis McElhinney, who had 40 saves.
The Canes (30-22-6), returning from a 4-1 road trip that was their best since 1998, began the game three points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference. They’re now 15-5-1 since New Year’s Eve -- the most wins and points in the NHL in that 21-game stretch -- but still chasing the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets, with no room for slippage.
“I think everybody knows exactly what kind of position we’re in,” Niederreiter said. “Everybody needs to get points to make the playoffs and I feel like we’re right there. We need a big push to get there and every game matters a lot, so we’ve got to make sure we win the close ones.
“It’s coming down to playoff hockey and who wants it more, and we need to make sure we find ways to battle out games like tonight. It definitely wasn’t our best hockey we’ve played, but we found a way to win and that’s what matters.”
McElhinney was the Canes’ best player much of the game. He allowed an early goal to Leon Draisaitl as the Oilers converted on a two-on-one rush but was calm and steady after it on a night when the Canes were outshot 41-27, when the Oilers’ Connor McDavid again demonstrated why he’s the league’s most explosive player.
“He’s not hard to spot out there,” McElhinney said. “He’s flying 100 miles an hour and you can see him coming from 200 feet away. He’s special, just a combination of skills and speed. He’s a treat to watch.”
The game’s start was blistering, exciting. Niederreiter scored his first just 37 seconds into the game. Less than a minute later, Draisaitl tied the score for the Oilers (24-28-5) with his 34th of the season, but Lucas Wallmark quickly gave the Canes the lead again off a Teuvo Teravainen pass.
After three goals in the first 2:16, both goalies settled in and the game settled down.
McElhinney had to be sharp, especially with McDavid on the move and active. The Oilers’ Mikko Koskinen, a giant in net at 6-7, didn’t face as much work as McElhinney but made some timely saves before Neiderreiter scored his second at 16:23 of the third, again off a Sebastian Aho assist.
Neiderreiter now has eight goals in 12 games since the Jan. 17 trade from the Minnesota Wild -- four against the Oilers. The transition has been seamless and the Swiss-born winger has fit in well on Aho’s line with captain Justin Williams.
“Nino has been lights-out since he arrived,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.
Why so good, so soon?
“At the end of the day you always want to be the best player you can be and sometimes a change helps and sometimes it doesn’t,” Niederreiter said. “In my case it definitely helped a lot.”
McDavid was not much of a factor in the Jan. 20 game in Edmonton, when the Canes won 7-4 and Niederreiter and Wallmark each scored twice. No. 97 was a handful Friday, although the Canes’ defensive pairing of Calvin de Haan and Trevor van Riemsdyk did their best in containing him and held him without a point.
“I think we did a pretty good job, especially the penalty kill,” said McElhinney, who has won his last four starts and eight of his last nine. “We were able to slow him down coming through the neutral zone and across our blue line, which I thought was huge. You try to control him as best you can but he’s still going to create opportunities.”
Things turned chippy late in the second. The Oilers’ Kris Russell flattened Niederreiter with a cross-check behind the Edmonton net, but there was no call. An angry Niederreiter jumped back up and slammed into the Oilers’ Oscar Klefbom along the boards. After all the bodies were separated, Niederreiter was headed to the penalty box for a boarding penalty.
McElhinney and the Canes got the job done on the ensuing penalty kill -- Edmonton was 0-3 on the power play in the game -- although there was another skirmish, this one in front of the Canes’ net. Roughing penalties were called on Carolina’s Jordan Martinook and the Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
McElhinney snuffed out one late chance on that Oilers’ power play, stopping a shot in tight by forward Ty Rattie, who once spent time with the Canes. McElhinney’s sharp play continued in the third as he stopped a point-blank shot by Colby Cave with about 14 minutes left in regulation, then denied McDavid from the slot with 5:25 left.
“We just battled, hung in there and our goaltender was great tonight,” Brind’Amour said.