On Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes moved on from the four-game set against Tampa Bay and picked up a needed win against the Florida Panthers to get back on track. Even with the shortened 2020-21 NHL schedule there is a lot of hockey yet to be played in the regular season. But a unique chance to square off against the reigning Stanley Cup champions offered a great evaluation point deep enough into the season to have meaning. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers the series and what it means for the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes from a few angles.
Are the Hurricanes at the same level?
Based on the results of the series, I would say that the Hurricanes are either at that level or close. Tampa Bay deserves credit for winning three out of four and has a rightful claim to being the better team even if maybe only by a modest margin. Results do matter. If I work through the games, the Hurricanes were the better team by a wide margin in the first game which they won decisively. I thought Tampa Bay deserved their game 2 win even if only by a slight margin and were dominant in game 3. Despite the loss, I thought the Hurricanes were better in game 4. When I net it out, the series was pretty even, but I do give the edge to Tampa Bay based on results. At a bare minimum, I think it is fair to say that the Hurricanes can hang with the Lightning in a long NHL series if they play well.
Did the series uncover areas for improvement?
The Hurricanes did not lose games because of their goaltending, but I think the Lightning did win games. Each team won a game in which they were dominant, but the Lightning won both of the other two games that were closer to even. Vasilevskiy was a major factor in the Lightning game 2 win, and McElhinney arguably stole game 4. There is not a move to be made or a change, that will push the Hurricanes netminding above Vasilevskiy, but I think maybe the takeaway here is the importance of the Hurricanes playing the type of game that that makes things difficult for Vasilevskiy or any top notch goalie. The current iteration of the Hurricanes has been very good at sending bodies to the front of the net. Jesper Fast and Vincent Trocheck have been good additions in that regard to go with Jordan Staal and the fourth-liners who consistently flood the top of the net. The key is for this to permeate all lines and the team’s style of play such that the skilled scorers too avoid falling into the trap of just trying to beat the hot goalie.
Best against best
In consecutive playoff series against the Bruins, I would argue that the Bruins’ top players were better than the Hurricanes top players even if only by a modest margin. I think that was generally true in the recent losses to the Lightning. In the playoffs or even just heavyweight battle type series, the winner is very often determined by which team’s top players are better. As such, the next step up for the Hurricanes in the playoffs will likely require the Hurricanes top players not just holding their own but bettering other teams’ top players. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov each had a goal and an assist in the Hurricanes’ lone win, but each was minus 4 in the three losses with a lone Aho assist to their credit. Scoring depth to help them is critical too, but even when receiving a heavy helping of Victor Hedman, the Canes top players need to find a way to break through.
It is never enough
The Hurricanes entered the Tampa Bay series flying high and winning consistently in different ways. By no means was the 1-3 mark against the Lightning horrific, but it did show that there is always room to improve in terms of matching up against the NHL’s best teams. The Hurricanes do not have any gaping holes in the lineup that must be filled to be competitive, and the team does not have a ton of cap space to work with. But if the trade deadline presents an opportunity to add one more difference-maker maybe in terms of forward scoring, it is worth exploring.
Making adjustments in real time
I thought the Lightning gained an advantage with adjustments for game 2 and maybe even more so for game 3 in terms of how they were forechecking and also generating more space for their skating defensemen to skate and create with the puck on their sticks in the offensive zone. The Hurricanes did not seem to have an answer, especially in game 3. The oddity of the 2020-21 schedule presented an opportunity to see how the teams stacked up in a run of consecutive games much like a playoff series. Without an actual playoff series for reference, the video from the series could be helpful in preparing for a playoff match up if the Hurricanes get that opportunity.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How do you think the Canes stacked up against the Lightning in the four-game set?
2) In what areas do you think the Hurricanes will need to be better to beat the Lightning if the two face-off in the playoffs?