WASHINGTON — Carolina Hurricanes center Jesperi Kotkaniemi was injured on a penalized hit with 1.8 seconds left, and put no weight on his left leg as he left the ice Monday night during a 6-1 victory over the Washington Capitals.
With the game long decided, Kotkaniemi was hit by Capitals forward Lars Eller, and his uncertain status overshadowed a big win for a club chasing the Metropolitan Division title.
“I don’t know the extent, but it’s not good,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said during a somber postgame news conference. “He’s injured. I don’t know how bad, but he’s definitely going to be out. The game was over. Let’s just get it over with. Two seconds left. I don’t like it. But nothing you can do about it.”
The expectations are high for Kotkaniemi in Carolina, and during a terrific season for the franchise, he is beginning to find his way, playing mostly on Brind’Amour’s fourth line. Earlier this month, he signed a long-term extension after simmering contract drama in the offseason.
“I don’t know even who hit him, but whoever it was, it’s a 6-1 game, one second left and does that,” said Carolina’s Martin Necas, who scored twice in the win. “He tries to be a hero or whatever. I don’t know. I have no words for that. It’s just ridiculous.”
Exactly a week before the win, Kotkaniemi, 21, agreed to an eight-year extension — with an average-annual value of $4.82 million — ensuring the former No. 3 overall draft pick will be with Carolina through the 2029-30 season. Kotkaniemi has 11 goals and 26 points this season.
The story behind the Hurricanes and Kotkaniemi is not your typical transaction in NHL parlance. They acquired Kotkaniemi in September, signing him as a restricted free agent to a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet. The Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in 2018, opted not to match the deal in the league’s first successful offer-sheet acquisition since 2007.
It was a response to Montreal trying to poach Carolina’s Sebastian Aho the same way in 2019, though the Hurricanes matched the five-year offer sheet to keep him. But team president and general manager Don Waddell said the team wanted to reach a long-term deal with a player the team believes has good upside.
“We’re all confident he’s going to continue to grow his game,” Waddell said at the time of the new deal, “continue to learn and put up bigger numbers than even what he’s doing right now.”
And that’s in doubt for this season — at least for now. But if the fireworks are a sign of things to come, a Hurricanes-Capitals playoff series would be must-see entertainment. This result moved that one step closer to reality.
Carolina, which leads the Metropolitan, moved one point ahead of Florida in the back-and-forth race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, which would likely mean a series against the Capitals instead of Boston, Toronto or two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.
After losing to the Capitals in a shootout at home 10 days ago and less than a month since getting blown out of this building, the Hurricanes made plenty of statements to show they wouldn’t be at a disadvantage if the teams face off in early May.
That began well before puck drop with Brind’Amour starting No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen over backup Antti Raanta despite a visit to the Lightning looming Tuesday in the second half of a back-to-back. Andersen stopped 25 of the 26 shots he faced, with most of the pressure coming in the first half of the second period when the Capitals tilted the ice toward him.
Much of the rest of the game was all Carolina, perhaps a product of the opposite scheduling for Washington: no game until Sunday and the next two days completely off.
“We don’t really get to decide,” forward Garnet Hathaway said of the break. “We’re going to make the most of it right now. It’s one that, I think you could look at this game and really want to get back in the rink and turn things around.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.