Luke DeCock

A (playoff) star is born, not a moment too soon for the Hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes’ Svechnikov: ‘We’re looking forward to the next game’

Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov, who scored twice in the Canes' loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their playoff series Thursday April 11, 2019, says the Canes need to stay out of the penalty box to be successful in Game 2.
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Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov, who scored twice in the Canes' loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their playoff series Thursday April 11, 2019, says the Canes need to stay out of the penalty box to be successful in Game 2.

After three years in North America, Andrei Svechnikov’s grasp of conversational English is about what anyone would expect, with a decent handle on slang and a useful ability to communicate with his teammates at a colloquial level.

It’s different in the spotlight, on camera, in public. That’s hard on anyone in their second language. And here, Svechnikov is less comfortable. He sprints through answers, stringing together the words he wants to use without the proper pacing or conjunctions or objects, or he stumbles through longer constructions like a newborn colt trying to walk, verbally.

All of which is entirely normal and expected and fine, and it’s a measure of how far Svechnikov has come in the spotlight that when he was forced to speak from the same podium Friday where Rod Brind’Amour had just addressed the media, instead of his more comfortable locker stall – the Hurricanes having closed their locker room to the press early to hold a penalty-kill meeting, just as Svechnikov was (as usual) one of the last players to exit the ice – the Russian rookie seemed to be more comfortable the longer he was on the stage.

His first answer, monotone: “Oh I feel like I’m pretty confident and got great emotion but we lost that game so it’s all right we have to win next game.”

But by the end, only a few questions and a minute later, he was much smoother. Asked whether his first goal gave him some confidence, his response was easy and … confident.

“Exactly,” Svechnikov said, smiling. “For sure, when you score, it always does give you a little more confidence.”

Which is also kind of how his playoff debut went Thursday: somewhat lost on the ice for two periods, knocked around by Brooks Orpik, only to become the best player on the ice in the third, scoring a pair of goals in the 4-2 loss with the kind of pinpoint finishing for which the Capitals are better known than the Hurricanes.

At 19 years and 16 days, Svechnikov became the fourth-youngest player to score twice in a playoff game, behind only Pierre Turgeon (twice) and Dainius Zubrus. He bested his coach, Brind’Amour, who did it twice as a 19-year-old in 1990, a decade before Svechnikov was born. (Of the nine players to score two playoff goals in a game as teens, four are connected in some way to the Hurricanes, with Glen Wesley and Jordan Staal also on the list.) And in his postseason debut, no less.

“I expect it. I don’t know – it’s not surprising to me,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s a real good player and he’s finding his way. He hasn’t even realized how good he can be. The moment, the playoffs, that doesn’t even affect him.”

Once Svechnikov got away from Orpik – who managed not to break anyone’s neck, always a positive – he was able to carve his place in playoff history, and in one case carve up a better defenseman than Orpik, Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson.

Given the Hurricanes’ skill deficit against the high-powered Capitals, goals like those could be the difference in the series, assuming Carolina’s other top-line talent finishes a chance or two at some point. The matchup between the teams was well established going into Game 1 and didn’t change after it, the Hurricanes’ quantity against the Capitals’ quality, but Svechnikov has the kind of quality to upset that balance.

His quick adjustment to playoff hockey matches his relatively quick adjustment to the NHL, even as Brind’Amour has slow-rolled Svechnikov’s ice time and responsibility, giving a player used to having the puck constantly on his stick at lower levels time to adjust to playing without it more often. It hasn’t been the easiest adjustment – and Svechnikov’s nasty habit of taking bad offensive-zone penalties has to stop – but there’s no doubting Svechnikov’s commitment to that part of his game or the rest of it.

Always one of the first players on the ice for practice and the last players off, the Hurricanes aren’t just blowing smoke about his work ethic to polish a young player’s confidence. They genuinely respect it.

“He’s not a typical 18- or 19-year-old in the league,” teammate and mentor Jordan Martinook said. “He’s built like a 25- or 26-year-old. He’s strong. And he works extremely hard. He’s not really a rookie, or at least it doesn’t seem like it.”

He does seem like a rookie in English, but he’s working on that, too; like his defensive-zone play, it’s fine when there’s no pressure and getting better when there is. But Svechnikov getting put unexpectedly on the spot Friday was a good reminder that there’s nowhere to hide in the playoffs, on or off the ice.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.