The first Stanley Cup finals Alex Nedeljkovic remembers watching, he was 10 years old and he had $1 bet on Game 7. He collected when the Carolina Hurricanes won, thanks in part to a rookie goalie who didn’t even expect to play in the playoffs, but found himself being handed the Conn Smythe Trophy at center ice by Gary Bettman when they were over.
What happened to Cam Ward 15 years ago remains a fairy tale for goalies, the kind of bedtime story goalie parents tell their kids, especially the ones who aren’t playing that much.
You never know what could happen!
You could end up playing and winning the Stanley Cup!
As Nedeljkovic put it this week: “Just to have a rookie goalie come in, play well, stand on his head, go down and win the Conn Smythe.”
So here we are again with the Hurricanes heading into the playoffs with another rookie goalie ready to step in, and in Nedeljkovic’s case, perhaps even start Game 1. That’s the biggest difference between the two, among others — Nedeljkovic is not only an older rookie but carried the Hurricanes through the dog days of the season, while Ward was used sparingly until the playoffs — but there’s still a sense of the familiar to the scenario.
Nedeljkovic is a 25-year-old rookie, with a slightly longer and more winding path to the NHL than Ward. He was a first-round pick who was fast-tracked to the league and was only 22 with one full AHL season under his belt when he made his playoff debut.
But Nedeljkovic has also had some measure of career success of his own by now, winning the AHL Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in 2019, then making the most of the opportunity created by Petr Mrazek’s injury this season to jump into the mix, stabilize the Hurricanes’ net and insert his name into the Calder Trophy conversation as the NHL’s rookie of the year — all after being put on waivers and going unclaimed in January.
“Once I kind of figured it out and got to the right mental space, I was telling myself it’s just another game, you’ve been doing this your whole life,” Nedeljkovic said. “There’s nothing new, really. Just playing against better players. You’ve got to believe in yourself, that you’re good enough to be here. Good enough to make the saves.”
He also became the first rookie to be awarded the Josef Vasicek Award by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, recognizing cooperation with the media. (Ward won it as well, in 2008.)
Looking up to Cam Ward
It has been a long time coming for Nedeljkovic, who first came to training camp with the Hurricanes for the first time in 2014 after they drafted him in the second round. He had some of Ward’s hockey cards and a puck and a plaque of Ward holding the Conn Smythe growing up. That fall, his biggest challenge before being sent back to juniors was how to get Ward to sign one of his hockey cards without it being, you know, super awkward.
“I remember telling him one time that I was just holding the fort until he was ready,” Ward said. “It appears he has taken that next step and he’s ready to take on a more important role. There’s no better time to do that than in the Stanley Cup playoffs, if he gets that opportunity. It’s kind of crazy watching him this season, how things evolved.”
Things evolved quickly for Ward in 2006 when the Hurricanes’ first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens started to go south. The Hurricanes went north down 2-0 after losing the first two games at home, and goalie Martin Gerber’s subpar performance was a big part of it. Gerber had been an absolute rock for the Hurricanes all season -- it was hard, at times, to even find spots for Ward to play — but he wasn’t quite right to start that series.
After Ward came out of the bullpen and played well in an overtime loss in Game 2, coach Peter Laviolette pulled him aside at the team hotel in Montreal to tell him he would start Game 3 -- thrown to the wolves in a frenzied Bell Centre where Habs fans sensed not only victory but revenge for their elimination at the hands of the Hurricanes four years earlier. The Hurricanes won Game 3 in overtime and never really looked back.
Ward’s lesson for Nedeljkovic, if he gets his chance: Have fun, a phrase Ward used to write on the heel of his stick.
“I remember in the warmups for Game 3 taking a moment and just looking around and soaking it all in,” Ward said. “I remember telling myself, no matter what happens tonight, I was going to enjoy this moment. I think when you do that you play loose, you play with feeling. Fortunately, things all went great for myself in that first year. With saying that, I soon realized how difficult it was to get back in a situation like that. You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get.”
Rod Brind’Amour’s decision at goal is uncertain
Ward and Brind’Amour combined for only one more playoff appearance as players, in 2009, but Brind’Amour has led the Hurricanes to three straight postseasons as a head coach doing things very much his own way. That includes being on the record saying that the paranoid NHL practice of obfuscating who’s starting in goal is pointless, but as Brind’Amour tries to decide who gets the start in Game 1, he’s holding his cards uncharacteristically close.
The argument for Mrazek is that if the Hurricanes are going to win the Stanley Cup, Mrazek being at the absolute top of his game gives them their best shot, and denting his confidence before the playoffs even start is not going to get him there.
The argument for Nedeljkovic is that he’s played the best of the three down the stretch, and if he falters, there’s still always the option to go back to Mrazek at any point.
There’s even an argument for James Reimer, who’s third on the list statistically but has had the most success of any of the trio against the Predators this season.
This much is certain: Just as it has been in the last two playoff campaigns, Brind’Amour’s decision-making is informed by his experience as a player.
In 2002, the Hurricanes had to go from Arturs Irbe to Kevin Weekes and back to Irbe to make the Stanley Cup final, and Irbe even gave them a chance to pull a momentous upset there.
In 2006, Laviolette consulted Brind’Amour, his captain, on the switch from Gerber to Ward. The Hurricanes would end up needing both, with Gerber returning to win a critical start in the conference finals against the Buffalo Sabres when Ward lost his edge, temporarily.
Alex Nedeljkovic’s moment has arrived
As a coach, Brind’Amour has never been a one-goalie guy. And whether through necessity, as when Mrazek got hurt in 2019 and Curtis McElhinney completed a second-round sweep, or entirely by choice when he gave Reimer the start in the third and final game of the Hurricanes’ preliminary-round sweep of the New York Rangers last August, he’s never been shy to switch.
“You guys ask so many questions about goalies, and I spend so little time thinking about that,” Brind’Amour said. “I guess when you have two, or three now in our case, that you feel pretty good about, I’ve got a lot of other fish to worry about.”
So whether Nedeljkovic watches Game 1 or starts it, he’s unlikely to remain in either position for too long. Ward, in 2006, didn’t know his moment had arrived until it did. Nedeljkovic knows his has, whether that’s now or later. Ward’s past laid the ground for Nedeljkovic’s present.
“Weirdly enough, Wardo (was) in this kind of similar situation that I’ve been in right now,” Nedeljkovic said. “We’ll see going forward what plays out.”
Predators at Hurricanes
Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round One
When: 8 p.m., Monday
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
Watch: CNBC, BSSO