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NHL's Carolina Hurricanes enter five-game qualifying series against Rangers without Dougie Hamilton

NHL's Carolina Hurricanes enter five-game qualifying series against Rangers without Dougie Hamilton

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RALEIGH — For the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, it’s time.

The Hurricanes put in two weeks of training camp in Raleigh, left for Toronto, practiced and played an exhibition game. Off the ice, they’ve played poker, Catan and mini-golf, all the typical team-bonding stuff, while adjusting to life in a “bubble” designed to keep them secure and healthy during the coronavirus pandemic.

But it’s now time to begin what brought them together: pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

When the NHL players voted on the league’s Return to Play playoff scenarios, the Hurricanes voted against a 24-team format, preferring only the top 16 teams compete. The New York Rangers, who were outside the 16 when the season was paused, took notice and took issue.

So here we are. The Hurricanes and Rangers play Game 1 of their best-of-five qualifying round today at Scotiabank Arena, and Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Friday they would do it without defenseman Dougie Hamilton.

Hamilton, injured during training camp, missed the last two practices in Raleigh and the three in Toronto, plus the exhibition game Wednesday. Brind’Amour said Hamilton, who got in some skating Friday after practice, was “getting better” but was still “unfit to play” — the NHL Phase 4 terminology — although Brind’Amour didn’t rule out a return during the series.

“You would hope so but we’re certainly not going to rush him back,” Brind’Amour said in his media call. “But if he’s close to being able to play he’s going to get in there. We know the importance of having him in the lineup. It’s a huge, huge loss for us. So we want to get him back in there ASAP.”

Hamilton suffered a broken left fibula in January that required surgery, forced him to miss the 2020 NHL All-Star Weekend and kept him out of the last 21 games of the season before the pause. He was back skating and ready for training camp, only to leave the ice in pain during the July 22 practice at PNC Arena.

While Hamilton is out, the Hurricanes could have forward Martin Necas in the lineup for Game 1. Necas, who left the final practice in Raleigh on July 25 with an undisclosed injury, had not been in team on-ice workouts in Toronto before returning Friday.

“Marty looked really good today and felt good,” Brind’Amour said of Necas, a speedy winger who scored 16 goals and had 36 points as a rookie. “We’ll see how that goes (today, Saturday), see if he feels the same way. We hope to see him in the lineup.”

Brind’Amour didn’t say who Necas would replace among the forwards, should he play. Nor did he name his starting goaltender, saying he was waiting until Friday night to let the starter know he would be in net for Game 1.

Petr Mrazek started the exhibition game, allowing the three goals on 16 shots in the 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals, albeit with scant defensive help. James Reimer stopped all nine shots he faced after entering in the second period.

“I envision that both guys will probably get action here,” he said. “There’s a lot of games in a short time frame. I think we’ll probably get both guys in there.”

The Hurricanes were one of the best feel-good stories of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, reaching the Eastern Conference finals. The games were intense, the crowds loud and lively at PNC Arena and the atmosphere frenzied.

The winner of the 24-team Return to Play format will be the 2020 Stanley Cup champion. But will the games have the real feel of playoff games given the impact of the virus, the lack of fans in the building, the confinement of living in a bubble in Toronto.

“I would say for sure the intensity will be there,” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said Friday in a media call. “As for momentum shifts, with the crowd and all that stuff, that might not be quite the same, obviously. But I know for a fact once that pucks drops it’s going to be intense. It’s going to be a good game, a good battle.”

The Rangers swept the Hurricanes in the regular season but that now seems like eons ago. Carolina made some changes at the trade deadline in February, bringing in center Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei, giving the Hurricanes a different cast and look.

Skjei was with the Rangers. Now, he’ll be trying to beat the Rangers and said he won’t be lacking motivation and should be playing with a “chip” on his shoulder against the team that traded him away.

And here’s an intriguing stat: according to Dan Rosen of NHL.com, the NHL has not held a five-game postseason series since 1986. Of the 56 five-game series held in the 1980s, the winner of Game 1 won the series 49 times.

“The stress level goes up if you don’t win that first one,” Brind’Amour said.

This article is published through the N.C. News Collaborative, a partnership of Lee, Gannett and McClatchy newspapers in North Carolina that aims to better inform readers throughout the state.

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