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Nedeljkovic Makes NHL Debut in Home State

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes /

Alex Nedeljkovic knew he had to be ready for anything.

A night after earning his first National Hockey League recall, Nedeljkovic was dressing in his first NHL game as the Carolina Hurricanes were facing off with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Nedeljkovic wasn't starting - veteran goaltender Cam Ward was set to make his 20th consecutive appearance in net - but you never know when your name and number will be called. Just ask Jorge Alves.

As it turned out, Nedeljkovic was summoned into action at about the halfway point of Tuesday night's game. It was an unexpected way to make his NHL debut, but he was ready.

"Whatever level you're playing at, if you're backing up, you're always ready to go just in case something happens," he said after the game. "It was a lot of fun and pretty surreal."

Leading 2-1 as the puck dropped to begin the second period, Columbus added another pair of goals in the first 10 minutes to stretch their lead to three. The Hurricanes needed a shake-up, and Nedeljkovic was tabbed.

"To be honest, I was a little anxious," he said. "At the moment [I wanted to] hurry up just to get my stuff ready, get everything on and get in the net. After that, I tried to break it down into five-minute increments as best I could."

Nedeljkovic made his first NHL save at the 14:12 mark of the second period, nearly five minutes after he took to the crease, as he turned away a 35-foot wrister from Alexander Wennberg.

"You always want to start the game off right with a save. To get the first one out of the way was a big sigh of relief," he said. "Guys made my job a little easier forcing shots from the outside. That just makes it easier for me."

Video: CAR@CBJ: Nedeljkovic swallows Gagner's slap shot

Nedeljkovic, hails from Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He grew up watching the Blue Jackets, and upon word of his call-up, his family made plans to make the two-hour drive to Columbus.

"I always try to find [my family] wherever I'm at, and fortunately I was able to find them pretty quickly. It was pretty cool to see them smiling. That took a little bit of pressure off me," he said. "It was a lot of fun to be able to play and get my first game here."

Nedeljkovic not only played, but he played well. The 21-year-old rookie netminder looked anything but and did everything he could have been asked to do. He helped to stop the bleeding after the Canes surrendered four unanswered goals and stopped all 17 shots he faced in nearly 30 minutes of work. Nedeljkovic was particularly busy in the third period when the Blue Jackets were mounting a seemingly relentless attack.

"He was good," head coach Bill Peters said. "He came in, shut the door and gave us a chance to come back."

"I felt pretty good. It's a lot easier when you get into a game and you get a lot of shots," he said. "They were putting pucks on net, and they had a lot of sustained pressure in our end. It made it easier to stay focused, stay in the game and find a rhythm."

He was even whistled for a holding penalty, an unconventional stat line for an unconventional debut.

"It's funny. Everyone was kind of joking around that I had to get on the scoresheet somehow. Getting a penalty, I guess, was the way to do it," he joked. "Thankfully the guys were able to kill it off and save my butt there."

Nedeljkovic, who was selected by the Canes in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft and is in his first professional season, is likely to be reassigned to Charlotte in the coming days, but he takes with him an unforgettable night in his home state.

"I'm going to relish it and enjoy it," he said. "It was a lot of fun."

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