RALEIGH — Even some of the Hurricanes fans gave a standing ovation after Detroit goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic made a 46-save shutout in his second game at Raleigh since Carolina traded him as part of his fold overhaul in the offseason.
It was more an appreciation for the five seasons Nedeljkovic has spent as the team’s putative ‘goalkeeper of the future’ than a yearning to have the 26-year-old as back cover for the Hurricanes.
Almost eight months ago, feelings were different. Nedeljkovic was coming off a remarkable season that included a third-place finish in the Calder Trophy pick for the NHL’s top rookie when he was traded to the Red Wings for the third round.
Fast forward to this spring: The Hurricanes have conceded the fewest goals in the NHL thanks to two new goalies, veterans Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta.
That certainly helped fans forget about Nedeljkovic, and Carolina even turned the goalie choice Detroit gave them into a deadline extension when they took on last year’s 94th overall pick, defenseman Aidan Hreschuk Exchanged Columbus for striker Max Domi.
But things got complicated in Colorado on Saturday when Andersen – who has borne most of the goalkeeping burden – picked up a knee injury late in the Hurricanes’ 7-4 loss to the Avalanche.
The team said Andersen, who is 35-14-3 this season with a 2.17 clean sheet average and .922 save percentage with four shutouts, will be rerated next week. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Andersen’s MRI came back negative, offering a glimmer of hope with just five games left in the regular season.
Not that the hurricanes are overly concerned.
The reshuffle of Carolina’s depth chart also included Raanta, who was a proven starter in the league but has struggled with injury struggles of his own in the past.
He’s been healthy for the most part this season and welcomes the chance to take on an even bigger role.
“I think every goalie wants to play,” said Raanta, who is 13-5-4 with a 2.46 clean sheet average and a .912 save percentage with two shutouts. “If you get a few games in a row, a few good games, it just builds your confidence and you start playing with your instincts more.”
And trainer Rod Brind’Amour is also convinced of Raanta.
“It’s proven – both guys had a good year and were solid for us,” Brind’Amour said of his tandem. “It’s unfortunate. Injuries are part of it. That’s why you have depth and that’s about all you have to say about it.”
The Hurricanes have had to tap into their goaltender talent pool this season, signing Jack LaFontaine to shore up their minor-league depth chart earlier in the season and bringing in potential Pyotr Kochetkov from Russia after his KHL season ended.
The 22-year-old Kochetkov — who was drafted with the 2019 second-round pick when Carolina traded Jeff Skinner to Buffalo in the summer of 2018 — has cozyed up with the team’s AHL partner, going 13-1-1 on a .921 save Percentage and 2.09 goals against average for powerhouse Chicago Wolves.
Now with regular goalkeeper No. 3 Alex Lyon injured, Kochetkov will slip to second at Raleigh while Andersen recovers.
“He played really well,” Brind’Amour said of Kochetkov, “but Lyon was injured. … Sometimes your choices are pretty much ‘there is no choice’.”
For Kochetkov, who made his AHL debut on Feb. 19 and is about to make his NHL debut, two months have been made for a whirlwind.
A native of Penza, Russia, who is still learning English, has let his play speak for itself and also displayed fire during his brief stint in North America.
And there’s at least one familiar face in Raleigh helping him on his journey.
“We played (together) when he was 15 years old,” said Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov. “We played a few games with him and he actually moved to my club and played there for a year and obviously I know him.”
However, Svechnikov doesn’t think Kochetkov needs much guidance aside from help adjusting to life in North Carolina.
“I wouldn’t say I would give him any advice,” Svechnikov said. “He’s been with the pros for a couple of years. He can’t speak English and I’ve been trying to help him with that, just these little things to try and help him.”
While the main focus will remain on the health of Raanta and Andersen, Kochetkov should be given the chance to present himself as the new goalkeeper of the future.
He certainly made a good first impression on Raanta.
“It looks like it’s a little mix of (Andrei) Vasilevskiy and (Sergei) Bobrovsky what we saw there,” Raanta said of comparing Kochetkov to two of the NHL’s best Russian-born goalies after the first Rookie training with the team on Monday Arizona.
“So that’s a good mix. … You wouldn’t know he’s only 22.”