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Canes Reinforce Lineup After Trio of Injuries

How the Canes are coping after losing two goaltenders, top-pairing defenseman to injury

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / CarolinaHurricanes.com

In mid-January, the Carolina Hurricanes led the National Hockey League with the fewest man games lost in the 2019-20 season.

After all, the team had only dealt with one new injury - unrelated to a previous season's injury, like Trevor van Riemsdyk missing time early in the year after having shoulder surgery in May or Erik Haula having his surgically repaired knee flare up - when Martin Necas missed four games with a lower-body injury in early December.

That was a testament to the injury prevention strategies employed by the Canes' medical staff, headed up by Head Athletic Trainer Doug Bennett.

A contact sport, though, is inherently dangerous, and you can't guard against bad luck.

Dougie Hamilton suffered a broken fibula in his left leg in Columbus on Jan. 16. That regular-season-ending injury left a sizable hole in the Canes' lineup, especially considering Hamilton led the team in ice time (and still does) with a per game average of 23:17, played in all situations, was headed to his first NHL All-Star Weekend and was putting up career numbers.

"It's a huge loss, obviously," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said in mid-January. "He plays in every situation, and we count on him quite a bit. It's a big loss, but all teams go through this at some point. We'll see how we respond."

Tweet from @MSmithCanes: Ring ring, ring ring. Dougie Hamilton wheeling through the #Canes locker room. 🛴 pic.twitter.com/GQjvfLEXml

As if that luck wasn't rotten enough, a little more than five weeks later on Saturday night in Toronto, the Canes saw both of their goaltenders and a top-pairing defenseman leave with injuries in an unthinkable span of about 30 minutes of game time.

The glory of that night provided a natural high, seeing the Canes rally around a 42-year-old former Zamboni driver en route to his eight-save win in his improbable National Hockey League debut.

The Canes left Toronto with an all-important two points and memories for a lifetime, but their roster was undoubtedly gashed with injuries to three critical pieces. The inevitable, yet unfortunate dump of ice-cold water came when the reality of those injuries set in.

Thankfully, there is some good news - as much as injury news can be considered good, at least.

Petr Mrazek, who sustained a concussion in a violet race-to-the-puck collision with Kyle Clifford, is expected to return the earliest of the bunch. He might be out for even less than "weeks, at most," according to Canes President and General Manager Don Waddell.

"He's symptom-free right now. He's got more of a neck injury from getting hit like he did. He hasn't had a headache," Waddell said on Monday. "But, you go through the protocol and let time elapse. You don't know. It might linger around for five or ten days, but we don't think it's long. He's got no history of it."

James Reimer, who suffered a lower-body injury when Zach Hyman shoved Jaccob Slavin into Reimer while trying to gain position at the top of the crease, is likely farther off than Mrazek.

"We don't think our goalies are going to be out long-term," Waddell said on Monday evening, even though Brind'Amour had said that morning that none of the injuries were "short term."

Asked to clarify that on Tuesday, Brind'Amour said, "Long-term for me is a week. That's two, three, four games. That's a lot when you only have 20 left."

Fair.

Both Mrazek and Reimer were around Raleigh Center Ice on Tuesday while their teammates skated, but Brind'Amour had no further update on their statuses.

In the interim, the Canes recalled goaltenders Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg from Charlotte.

"We want Petr and Reims to get back, but until they do, we're real confident in both these guys," Brind'Amour said.

Nedeljkovic made his season debut on Tuesday, a rough outing in which he made 12 saves in a 4-1 loss to Dallas.

The Canes remain confident in their young goaltender. Just look at his track record. The 24-year-old was named the AHL's most outstanding goaltender in the 2018-19 season after posting a 34-9-5 record with a 2.26 goals-against average, a .916 save percentage and four shutouts. In 28 appearances with the Checkers this season, Nedeljkovic has registered a 15-10-2 record with a 2.15 goals-against average, a .905 save percentage and four shutouts.

"It's exciting. It's another playoff battle right now that the guys are in," Nedeljkovic said on Monday. "It's a chance to show what I can do. I'm just going to try to do what I can, stop pucks and give the guys the best chance to win a game."

Forsberg has appeared in 45 career NHL games with Chicago and Columbus, posting an 11-24-4 record with a 3.21 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage. In 27 appearances with the Checkers this season, the 27-year-old has notched a 15-9-2 record with a 2.95 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.

"It's not a good thing that someone gets hurt, but it's an opportunity for us," Forsberg said. "It's obviously a lot of fun to be up here."

Now, the worst of the injury news.

Brett Pesce suffered a right shoulder injury, "an issue he's had before," according to Brind'Amour.

Pesce was evaluated in Raleigh earlier this week and has since sought out multiple opinions on options he has moving forward, one of which is surgery.

Prior to Monday's trade deadline, Teuvo Teravainen filled in on the blue line in practice. His brother, Eero, is a defenseman, and Teuvo said Eero was much better than him at that position. That, of course, was a temporary placeholder, though.

Hours later, the Canes added both Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen to their defensive corps.

"We had two huge injuries on the back-end, arguably two of the better defensemen in the league out of the lineup. That's tough to replace," Brind'Amour said on Tuesday. "Give Tom and Don a lot of credit for going out there and trying to address that. That's huge for us."

Skjei made his Canes debut on Tuesday and recorded a team-high five shots on goal, two additional shot attempts and 20:37 of ice time while paired with Jaccob Slavin.

"As the game went on, I thought I played better," Skjei said after the game. "Definitely real impressed with this team. The work ethic and the trust guys have in each other is something that really stuck out to me."

Vatanen last played on Feb. 1 and has since been sidelined with a lower-body injury. The Canes expect him to return to the lineup "in early March," but that's a nebulous, moving target. Brind'Amour said on Thursday that he wasn't certain when Vatanen would be healthy enough to practice.

Vatanen will add a much-needed right shot to a group that is now comprised of five left-shooting defensemen; van Riemsdyk is currently the lone righty on the blue line.

"It's not the ideal match-ups with hands and everything, but it's just finding the right rhythm with the group," Brind'Amour said of his defensive pairs. "We'll probably mix them around a little bit."

Exactly 20 games remain in the 2019-20 regular season, and the Canes are locked in a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference, on the outside looking in by two points as of Thursday afternoon.

The trio of injuries suffered in Toronto were certainly a blow to a roster that had otherwise been fairly unscathed all season. But, with some nimble salary cap gymnastics and shrewd asset management, the Canes were able to reinforce their lineup for the stretch run.

Some terrible, horrible, no good, very bad luck isn't about to derail this train.

"We believe in the guys we have here, but we thought needed to strengthen us at certain positions," Waddell said. "We come out of this feeling really good about the players we added."

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