Gold: Canes dealing with playing shorthanded

April 19, 2019

The Carolina Hurricanes have been pretty good this series while playing shorthanded. Since allowing a pair of power play goals to open up Game 1, the Canes have killed off 12 of the last 13 penalties. That includes the late 3rd period boarding call on Warren Foegele as Carolina was trying to lock down a 2-1 Game 4 victory.

You know how that turned out. (Whew!!)

But, this isn’t about killing penalties. This is about playing short handed. This is about the roster heading into Game 5 in Washington. Does Carolina have enough healthy bodies to continue this run?

Carolina entered the series without defenseman Calvin de Haan, who missed the last three games of the regular season with an upper body injury and stepped back onto the ice for only 12:21 in his first action of the playoffs Thursday night.

Michael Ferland left Game 3 early in the 1st period after reaggravating an upper body injury that’s been plaguing him since late January. Then Andrei Svechnikov got knocked out — literally, unfortunately — of the same game and, while clearly better, is doubtful for Saturday night in Washington.

Jordan Martinook, also dealing with a lower body concern for much of the second half of the season, was injured while trying to check Caps defenseman Dimitry Orlov in the first period and is doubtful for Game 5 and maybe longer. If you’re scoring at home, that’s three top-9 forwards missing from the Carolina line up for a pivotal game on the road against an angry opponent. What’s worse, is that all three of those players bring a physical edge to their game that is necessary to compete in the playoffs, especially against a team as ornery as the Capitals, who lost their own top line player in T.J. Oshie.

The Hurricanes recalled Patrick Brown from the Charlotte Checkers for Game 4. A strong, defensive-minded grinder fit nicely into what Rod Brind’Amour needed, even though the Canes were replacing Svechnikov and Ferland in the line up. Brown played on the 4th line with Greg McKegg and Saku Maenalanen, played about 4 1/2 minutes and was solid. He made no mistakes.

Now what?

When asked Friday morning who that call-up might be, Brind’Amour joked, “we’re gonna dress Adam Gold. He’s coming in.”

NO. NO HE IS NOT. ADAM GOLD CAN NOT SKATE. I’m willing to help in other ways, but I’m ill-equipped for that task.

The truth is that the Checkers don’t have very many good options for the Hurricanes, not healthy ones, anyway. At least not for what Brind’Amour prefers — a player he doesn’t have to worry about on the defensive side of the ice. So, it’s Aleksi Saarela’s turn to be the next man up.

On the plus side, Saarela is a goal-scorer. He’s scored 55 goals, combined, in the last two seasons in the American Hockey League. He scored 14 of his team high 30 goals in the Checkers’ final 18 games, so he’s a goal-scorer who is on a bit of a roll. He’s got a great shot and scores from all over the ice.

He’s also a sturdy player at 5’11” and nearly 200 pounds. The prospect the Hurricanes acquired in the Eric Staal trade with the Rangers three years ago is not without ability.

But, Saarela isn’t known for his defensive acumen, though that has taken a turn for the better this year. He was an early cut from training camp last September as a result of that and a noticeable, sporadic effort level. Prospects, especially those who have already played a full year of minor league hockey and scored 25 goals, don’t get cut early unless there’s a reason. The Hurricanes brass sent Saarela a message.

It was, apparently, well-received.

It took a little time, but Saarela got over the disappointment and worked hard to become a more consistent player in all zones. He’s pretty good on the forecheck, can play a physical game — which he’ll need in Washington — and can play either wing.

He’s a slightly above average skater, but what does that look like against a team fueled with high-octane gas like Washington. The fact that he brings an element of offensive danger to the line up — again, should he play — benefits Carolina, as long as there aren’t any defensive lapses. Plus, it remains to be seen just how much ice time he’ll get as Brind’Amour has shown that the bench grows shorter as the game grows longer.

A guess is that Saarela might fit alongside Lucas Wallmark and Brock McGinn, a pair of players who know what they’re doing on the defensive side. Either way, Saarela would be the second player in Hurricanes history to skate in a playoff game after not being active in the NHL during the regular season. He’d also be the 11th rookie to play for the Canes this year.

That sounds like a lot.

Rod Brind’Amour has used the “next man up” line a lot of late. Until some of the casualties of the first four playoff games start returning, Aleksi Saarela is that next man.