In the space of a few days, the size of the crowd the Carolina Hurricanes will be able to host as the playoffs begin doubled. In a conference call with the NHL on Sunday, the league agreed to bump the capacity at PNC Arena from 11,000 to 12,000 for Monday’s Game 1 against the Nashville Predators, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell confirmed.
That’s up from the 6,000 the Hurricanes were planning to host before the state of North Carolina lifted capacity and social-distancing regulations on Friday, and matches the 12,000 the Predators have been cleared to host in their home games.
“That’s what we’ve missed, no doubt about it,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We’ve had some good crowds, but that emotion is what’s been missing in hockey. It’s a big deal.”
While the state guidelines were lifted, the Hurricanes still have to meet NHL standards for airflow, and will need to bring in extra ventilation equipment to fully open PNC Arena. The Centennial Authority, which oversees the arena, on Monday held a special board meeting to provide $202,838 to cover rental and operating costs for the first month, with the Hurricanes assuming any expenses after that. That could be as much as another $230,000 should the Hurricanes reach the Stanley Cup finals.
Bill Mullins, the authority’s finance committee chairman, noted that the authority does not typically cover arena operating expenses but said he was in favor of the compromise given the ongoing attempts to finalize the lease extension with the Hurricanes, which another authority member portrayed as “almost completed.” Mullins was one of three authority members to vote against the proposed lease extension last May. Public health considerations were also discussed.
“This is something, other than the fact it’s a COVID year, we probably would not want do do,” authority chairman Tom McCormick said.
Almost all of the additional tickets available over the weekend were in the arena’s lower levels, so while the 300 level may not be as full as usual, there should be a more typical playoff experience close to the ice.
“It’s awesome,” Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce said. “I remember two years ago not being able to hear yourself in those games at home. Obviously we feed off that. Every team does. But our fans are especially loud, so it’s going to be awesome to play for them and have them around.”
A Ned nod in goal?
Alex Nedeljkovic was the first goalie off the ice at Monday’s morning skate, but Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour still wasn’t saying who would be the starter in Game 1 against the Predators.
“He might be,” Brind’Amour said. “We make that decision based on tons of stuff. If he starts it’ll be because he earned it.”
Petr Mrazek had practiced in the net usually reserved for the starter all week, but the decision was always going to be a close one for Brind’Amour. Nedeljkovic has the best stats and Mrazek is still working his way back from a lower-body injury, but Mrazek has far more NHL playoff experience than the rookie Nedeljkovic. (Mrazek is actually fourth in franchise history in playoff wins.) He was also in net for last Monday’s meaningless 5-0 loss in Nashville, if that’s any consideration.
James Reimer, meanwhile, played arguably the best of the three against the Predators during the regular season but based on Sunday’s practice is not under consideration.
“All three of them have played really well at different times this season,” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said. “Right now we’re going to go with the guy we think is going to be the best for us.”
If he plays, Nedeljkovic would become the fourth rookie goaltender in franchise history to appear in a playoff game.
Pesce savors playoff return
While this will be the Hurricanes’ first home playoff game in front of fans since Game 4 of the conference finals in 2019, thanks to the NHL’s playoff bubble to complete the 2020 season, it’ll also be Pesce’s first playoff game since then. His injured shoulder kept him out of the postseason last August, and his defensive acumen was sorely missed against the Boston Bruins in particular.
“It was kind of tough sitting on the sidelines,” Pesce said. “I’m just super excited and ready to go. I’ve been waiting for a long time for this.”
Brind’Amour said he was “hopeful” defenseman Jaccob Slavin would be able to play Monday night but center Cedric Paquette was not ready to return to the lineup. Paquette has been out since May 1. … Six players on the Hurricanes’ playoff roster, including Nedeljkovic, were part of the AHL Charlotte Checkers’ run to the Calder Cup in 2019. … Sebastian Aho and Vincent Trocheck each had eight points to lead the Hurricanes in the season series against the Predators, in which the Hurricanes went 6-2-0.