The Carolina Hurricanes’ season is quickly turning from promising and exciting to special.
There’s no denying it now. The Canes are feeling it. They’re getting closer to what so many have wanted for so many years -- a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, with all the postseason perks, tailgates and community goodwill that comes with it.
They’re not there yet. But games like the one Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens make so much seem possible.
Trailing 1-0 with less than six minutes left in regulation, with Habs goalie Carey Price a rock in net, turning away every threat, the Canes found a way to win.
First, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk tied the score with a shot from the point at 14:21 of the third.
Next, rookie Andrei Svechnikov won it in overtime, ripping a shot from the right circle through Price at 3:15 of the extra period.
That rewarded Canes goalie Curtis McElhinney, who doggedly kept it a one-goal game for so long with several high-quality saves of his own and was named the game’s first star.
With 91 points, the Canes (42-26-7) strengthened their hold on the first wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are two points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are in third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Canes were three points ahead of the Canadiens (40-28-8), in the second wild-card position with 88 points.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, sitting below the playoff cutline with 86 points, won 5-0 at Vancouver on Sunday night.
“A great ending, obviously,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “Super exciting game. Overtime could have gone either way, they had some good chances, but obviously we got the win.”
Brind’Amour had no qualms sending out Svechnikov in the overtime, with the extra point on the line.
“You love the confidence he has,” Brind’Amour said. “He feels it and he’s earned the right to be out there.”
With goals in his last two games, Svechnikov has 20 for the season. The No. 2 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, the Russian has physically and mentally handled all the challenges and grind of playing in the NHL and now is playing his best hockey of the season.
“I’m super-confident right now,” Svechnikov said. “I’m just going out there and playing my game and just enjoying it.”
Svechnikov may enjoy this: he’s the youngest player in franchise history to score an overtime goal at 18 years and 363 days.
Not to overlooked was the hard work of McElhinney. He allowed a first-period goal to Paul Byron after a turnover in the Canes zone -- “A lucky bounce,” Brind’Amour called it -- but didn’t give up another in making 28 saves.
Price faced 40 shots, denying Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen on breakaways in the third period as the Habs looked to protect the 1-0 lead.
“He was phenomenal tonight,” McElhinney said. “Obviously he’s one of the best if not the best in the game in the last little while. He was on it tonight. I was just trying to keep pace with him.”
Van Riemsdyk’s goal was his third of the season and his first since Nov. 27 at Montreal. The puck appeared to glance off the leg of Habs defenseman Jordie Benn.
In the overtime, Jordan Staal outfought Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher for the puck in the neutral zone and got it ahead to Svechnikov. With Justin Faulk making it a two-on-one, Svechnikov kept the puck and fired a heavy shot through Price’s legs for his third game-winning goal of the season.
The Canes fell behind in the first and had just four shots in the second period, when they were badly outplayed. They were totally ineffective on three power plays in the game. But they kept pushing, kept competing. And won.
“You could kind of feel it coming our way,” van Riemsdyk said, “and it did.”