Canes Now

'Heck of a prospect.' Can 'Ned' be in the Hurricanes' goaltending mix next season?

Charlotte Checkers goalie Alex Nedeljkovic in a game last month against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Charlotte's Bojangles' Coliseum.
Charlotte Checkers goalie Alex Nedeljkovic in a game last month against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at Charlotte's Bojangles' Coliseum. Special to the Observer

Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic was in net for more than 146 minutes Wednesday for the Charlotte Checkers, facing 53 shots, allowing just two goals.

And, rather remarkably, losing.

In the longest game in American Hockey League history, the Checkers were beaten 2-1 in a fifth overtime by Lehigh Valley in Game 4 of their second-round Calder Cup playoff series. The Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate trailed 3-1 in the best-of-seven series after Alex Krushelnyski’s goal at 6:48 of the fifth OT decided it for the Phantoms.

Krushelnyski’s goal and Alex Lyon’s goaltending, that is.

Lyon, who made his NHL debut this year for the Philadelphia Flyers, was nearly flawless, making 94 saves for the Phantoms. That was four shy of the AHL record set by former Canes goalie Michael Leighton against the Phantoms in April 2008, when Leighton was with the Albany River Rats, then the Canes’ affiliate.

Lyon, who played college hockey at Yale, beat the Hurricanes in early March at PNC Arena in one of his 11 NHL games. He could figure in the Flyers’ goaltending plans next season.

Rod Brind'Amour is officially announced as the new head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes during a press conference Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at PNC Arena. He has server as the assistant coach for the past seven seasons.

And in a muddled Hurricanes goaltending situation, and now with Rod Brind'Amour as the new head coach, Nedeljkovic shouldn’t be overlooked, either, given his breakout season.

The Canes could again go with the tandem of Cam Ward and Scott Darling — if Ward is re-signed, and if Darling can return in better physical condition, find a better comfort zone in net and be a lot more effective. Or there could be a new mix, with Nedeljkovic trying to stick with the big team.

“He has made such huge strides this year,” Checkers coach Mike Vellucci said this week. "Everybody wrote him off last year like he wasn’t a good goalie as a rookie, but he’s proven everyone wrong this year. He’s a heck of a goaltender and heck of a prospect."

The player known as “Ned” to his teammates and coaches did struggle in 2016-17, his first year of professional hockey. Nedeljkovic bounced between the Checkers and Florida Everblades of the ECHL, trying to find consistency, find a groove.

“There were times last year when I found it hard to make a save,” he said. “There were pucks going in from the red line, pucks going in from the corners. There were times I was holding the stick a little too tight, trying to force saves.”

There was one memorable highlight: Nedeljkovic was recalled by the Canes in January 2017 and made his NHL debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Relieving starter Cam Ward, he stopped all 17 shots he faced..

Nedeljkovic, a second-round draft pick by Carolina in 2014, said he came into his second pro season with a fresher, sharper mental approach.

“I was a little more comfortable coming into this year,” he said. “Last year, I kind of put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, and you can never thrive when you’re putting so much pressure on yourself and you’re worrying about things happening.

“This year, I’ve taken it day by day. Whatever happened, happened. You take the good things from it and move on, and if you had a bad game, put it aside. That’s part of the maturing process, learning how to move on.”

That’s what he did against the Phantoms. Nedeljkovic was the loser Tuesday in Game 3 against the Phantoms, allowing four goals before being pulled by Vellucci with more than seven minutes left the second period of the 5-1 loss at Bojangles' Coliseum.

Asked after the game about his starter for Wednesday, Vellucci immediately said it would be Nedeljkovic, saying, “He’s been great all year.”

Nedeljkovic, 22, had a 31-12-2 record in the regular season, with five shutouts. His goals-against average, a bloated 3.40 in 2016-17, was lowered to 2.55 and he had a .903 save percentage.

“He works extremely hard, and his teammates love to play for him,” said Vellucci, who had Nedeljkovic in junior hockey with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL.

Nedeljkovic said he has consulted with Saul Miller, a sports psychologist in Vancouver whose book “Hockey Tough” deals with developing mental strategies. The two have stayed in touch throughout the season, sometimes having video chats.

“It’s nice to have another voice there, somebody that is outside of the hockey world that I can kind of throw things at,” Nedeljkovic said.

Nedeljkovic, a Parma, Ohio, native, said he made no technique changes before this season. Not the biggest guy in net at 6-0 and 198 pounds, he’s sticking with the goaltending style that made him a high draft pick.

“What’s made me successful got me here, and there’s no need to change that,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is the mental approach. I think mentally I’ve been in a much better state this year.”

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