On the surface, a single game in December shouldn’t have much of an impact in the grand scheme of things, but this one did. For both the Carolina Hurricanes and the Atlanta Thrashers, December 27, 2002 was a memorable night for very different reasons.
Hockey was just beginning to grab a foothold in the Tarheel State, and there was still a lot of residual excitement after the Canes’ Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals the previous year, their first deep playoff run in franchise history. The Hurricanes entered their 36th game of the season with a modest 15-12-5-3 record–back when overtime losses had their own column for some reason–points in four of their last five and tied atop the Southeast Division.
Atlanta, meanwhile, hadn’t enjoyed any real success to date. They were an NHL-worst 8-20-1-4 and had never beaten the Hurricanes in 17 tries. Head coach Curt Fraser was let go the previous day, and general manager Don Waddell took up residence behind the bench for the first time in over 10 years.
The two teams met on a Friday night in Raleigh in front of a sold out crowd, and things began as they almost always had between the two teams. Josef Vasicek scored just 109 seconds into the contest and Aaron Ward added a second goal about six minutes later. The Canes had all the momentum and it looked to be another tough loss for the Thrashers against their division rival.
A potential third goal clanged off the post instead and Ilya Kovalchuk took the rebound the other way and beat Kevin Weekes. Just over a minute later, Dany Heatley tied the game and silenced the crowd.
“We were nervous coming out,” Waddell admitted. “We made a couple of mistakes there and before you know it, we’re down 2-0. It would have been easy for our team to fold, but they didn’t and they came back.
Before the period was over, Jeff O’Neill would help Carolina retake the lead, but Patrik Stefan, Brad Tapper and Kovalchuk scored unanswered goals for Atlanta, sealing their first victory over the Hurricanes. The result of a single game sent both franchises spiraling in opposite directions.
While the win didn’t quite springboard the Thrashers to a playoff run that year, it did lift them out of irrelevancy. They had graduated from a fledgling expansion team to one that finished the season with over 30 wins for the first time in their history. From there, they increased their win total in each of the next three seasons, culminating in their only division championship in 2006-07.
Following the let down, the Hurricanes would go on one of the worst runs in their history. From the moment they hit that post on December 27 through March 5, they won a total of 3 games in their next 32. Oddly enough, they followed that up with a 4 game winning streak, then didn’t win another game the rest of the season. They averaged just 1.87 goals over their last 47 games for a record of 7-31-6-3. It was a disappointing year to say the least.
That summer, Eric Staal was drafted, and just three years later, the Hurricanes were celebrating their first Stanley Cup. Amazing how quickly things can turn around.