Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ McKegg polishing his resume in a second sport

Canes’ McKegg following loss to Boston: ‘I don’t think we played our best hockey’

Greg McKegg addresses the media following the Hurricanes' 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins in game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoffs series Thursday night, May 9, 2019.
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Greg McKegg addresses the media following the Hurricanes' 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins in game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoffs series Thursday night, May 9, 2019.

Everything changed when Greg McKegg got the call-up from the minors. The entire balance of the Carolina Hurricanes shifted. Nothing would be the same again.

With his arrival in January, McKegg instantly became the best golfer in the room.

Yes, he also solidified their entire lineup by stepping in to anchor the fourth line, allowing all the other pieces to fall into place and igniting a run that has extended all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, but that was hardly all.

On a team that has more than a few single-digit handicaps, and a proud tradition of elite golfers dating back to Ray Whitney, Erik Cole and Cam Ward, McKegg – a plus-1.8 handicap at his home course in Ontario – displaced captain Justin Williams as the (hockey) club champion, a great disturbance in the order of things.

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McKegg is a big reason why none of them have had time to play lately. The fourth-line center goes into Game 2 against the Boston Bruins on Sunday on a two-game goal-scoring streak, but his offense is the least of his contributions.

His ability to win faceoffs and hold his own in his own end has stabilized the Hurricanes’ fourth line, no matter who’s on either side of him. Thursday, it was Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook, but McKegg has been the constant.

These are the odd things that can happen in the playoffs, especially when they go on this long. A fourth-line center can become a sudden star. And a player who has spent the past five years bouncing between the NHL and the minors, running through five different organizations, the prototypical NHL journeyman, can find a home.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour covers many topics from the power play to the development of Andrei Svechnikov

“For a guy in my position, the things that I’ve experienced, I just try to take it day by day,” McKegg said. “You can’t take a breath. If I take a step back or almost get comfortable or complacent, I can find myself not in the spot where I want to be.”

The Hurricanes picked him up in a seemingly inconsequential deadline trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year as depth for Charlotte (AHL) as much as anything, but when they needed help in January, McKegg walked in one day and never left. He ended up scoring six goals in his half-season of work.

The hesitation to savor any security, even in these circumstances, is a hard-earned lesson. But McKegg probably has more than he realizes, let alone acknowledges.

“He’s a steady player. He does it right,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “At the end of the day he tries to do it right every day. There’s no lack of effort there. And he’s provided lately a couple goals. He has that in him. He can play.”

Of course, scoring goals in the playoffs never hurts.

McKegg’s current hot streak was accurately predicted by advanced analytics. After three games of the second-round series against the New York Islanders, he was fourth on the team in expected goals with nothing to show for it. He knocked in a rebound in Game 4 of that series and scored with a Cole-esque rush down the wing – albeit on the left instead of the right – getting knocked into Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask in the process.

In many ways, this season, and this playoff run, are the reward for all those years things didn’t go quite as planned.

He had higher hopes than this when the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him in the third round, but hockey beat him up and knocked him around, breaking his heart all those years he made the NHL roster out of training camp only to get sent down and stuck in the minors. This year was the opposite. He was one of the last cuts in training camp, then came up and scored in his Hurricanes debut.

“Kind of that first game, it just fell into place right away,” McKegg said. “It always helps when you can contribute right off the bat, get a win, team was feeling good at that point. I just tried to roll with it as long as I could. They’ve given me a great opportunity here.”

As a kid, when hockey season was over, his dad would drop him off at the golf course in the mornings and pick him up after dark. The two always went hand in hand for McKegg. After all those years, McKegg’s longest hockey season isn’t done yet.

Hurricanes at Bruins

When: 3 p.m., Sunday

Where: TD Garden, Boston

TV: NBC

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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.
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