For many NHL teams, it’s the time of the season when the players are fighting through injuries, relying on willpower and stamina, the medical treatment rooms full after games.
The Carolina Hurricanes are one of those teams.
“You’re running on adrenaline,” Canes captain Justin Williams said.
You’re also counting on everyone on the roster. For Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour that could mean using all four lines extensively in the last five games of the regular season -- and in the playoffs, should the Canes make it.
“Everybody has to be on-board,” Brind’Amour said Friday. “You don’t have to have great games by everybody but everybody has to be kind of noticeable in a positive way. We need everyone contributing.”
In the Canes’ 3-2 loss Thursday to the Washington Capitals, the fourth line contributed a go-ahead goal when Warren Foegele made a speedy inside-out move on defenseman Nick Jensen and beat goalie Braden Holtby with a strong power move for a 2-1 lead.
“You kind of live for these big moments, right?” Foegele said Friday. “We all want to be in these pressure games because the reward is so much fun and worth it.”
Foegele energized his teammates and Canes fans at PNC Arena, especially with his playful leap into the boards after his first goal since Feb. 8.
“That was a little excessive,” Foegele said, laughing. “I was so excited and I could hear how loud the crowd was and I was kind of feeding off that.”
His line, with center Greg McKegg and winger Brock McGinn, did its part, giving Brind’Amour an effective 10 or so minutes of ice time.
McKegg’s life changed abruptly on Jan. 4. With Canes center Jordan Staal dealing with concussion issues, McKegg was recalled from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. The Canes had won two straight games but were idling at 17-17-5 for the season, with the Columbus Blue Jackets up next.
Stepping into the lineup, McKegg had the game-winning goal and was named the game’s first star in a 4-2 win that looks even more important now, with playoff spots still to be decided in the Eastern Conference. The Canes, despite consecutive losses to the Caps this week, are 25-11-2 since the McKegg recall, an impressive group effort that has given the 26-year-old McKegg the chance of a lifetime after playing more than 300 AHL games with five teams.
“Really exciting,” McKegg said. “Every since I’ve been called up here it seems like every game has been important. It’s been playoff-hockey from that point, in the new year. I just try to help the team any way I can.”
For fourth-liners that usually means bringing the heat and not making mistakes. Forecheck, harass, be aggressive and disruptive, go full-tilt on every shift.
But these have been highly pressurized games of late. As Brind’Amour has said, the Canes have been pushing hard the past three months, making up ground after a disappointing December to get back into the thick of things.
“Each game the intensity gets elevated,” McKegg said, “They become more and more competitive, more and more tight. As the games have gone on, there’s less and less room and the intensity at another level. You’ve just got to keep pushing.
“But these are the games you want to be in. At the end of the year you want to be playing meaningful games. That’s what drives all of us. Adrenaline definitely is a key but it’s an exciting time of the year.”
And stressful. The Canes sit in the first wild-card spot with 91 points and the Blue Jackets in the second wild-card spot with 90. The Montreal Canadiens have 90 points but now are outside the playoff cutline, having played one more game than the Blue Jackets.
The Philadelphia Flyers, the Canes’ opponent Saturday at PNC Arena, have 82 points and five games left, looking to run the board and see what happens. For the Canes, who have been in that position often the past few years, it will be another test of that willpower and stamina.
McKegg was in the playoffs last year -- the AHL Calder Cup playoffs, with the Checkers. This is a far different playoff push.
“It’s the best time of the year,” McKegg said. “It’s what you dream of growing up.”