Heading into the final two-game set of the regular season against the Nashville Predators, the Hurricanes were a perfect 6-0. With two wins, the Hurricanes would finish no worse than second in the entire NHL and would ride an eight-game winning streak into a playoff series against those same Predators.
Since that starting point, things have taken a decided turn in a different direction. The Hurricanes first lost 3-1 to a hungry Nashville team that needed the win to clinch a playoff berth. Then on Monday in an odd game featuring a number of non-regulars on both sides, the Predators throttled the Hurricanes by a 5-0 margin.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers the significance of these two games as the teams prepare to face-off in the first round of the 2021 NHL Playoffs.
At a basic level, do these results matter?
In a word, yes. While I do not think losing a couple low (not zero but low) importance games with the division title already in hand is too significant for the Hurricanes, I think those two wins were very important on the Nashville side. With six losses in six games and a pretty good scoring margin overall, the Predators will benefit from proving that they can beat the Hurricanes. The long layoff and reset before the series starts will not allow much for momentum, but the Predators should now enter the series in a better mindset having found a formula for beating the Hurricanes.
That said, I do not think there is any damage done to the Hurricanes psyche nor do I think the momentum that the Predators will try to carry into the series will put the Hurricanes at any sizable disadvantage.
What are the takeaways from the 5-0 drubbing on Monday?
The first thing to note is the composition of the Hurricanes team that lost. The team was minus its top three defensemen in Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton. Jake Bean led the team in ice time, and Jake Gardiner was right behind him despite struggling. At forward, Jordan Staal and Andrei Svechnikov had the night off and other key players were light on ice time with Aho at 13:08 and Teravainen at 10:35. So by no means was this the playoff lineup Hurricanes that were run over.
That said, I did not a few significant takeaways on Twitter shortly after the game ended.
Most significant was Petr Mrazek. The team in front of him hung him out to dry a few times, so by no means can one pin the 5-0 result on him. But at the same time, Mrazek was not great either. What jumped out at me was how he overplayed things a bit multiple times in a way that was virtually non-existent in his game during the 2020-21 season. After returning from injury, Mrazek struggled a bit in his first outing in a 6-3 win but then rebounded with a strong effort in a 2-1 overtime loss that saw him steal a point for a Hurricanes team that did not deserve it that night. So Monday’s loss has him taking another step back just before the start of the playoffs. Heading into Monday’s game, I would have figured Mrazek as nearly a sure thing to start the playoff opener. I actually think that will still be the case, but there is definitely a debate to be had now. It just seems odd to see Mrazek lose his starting slot heading into playoffs after a tremendous year based on the results of a consolation contest playing in front of a partial AHL blue line. The game does raise the question on whether Mrazek is back and ready to go after his second injury.
Blue line depth
I have already multiple times bemoaned the fact that the Hurricanes swapped instead of adding defense help at the trade deadline. I would rather have paid a bit more to add Jani Hakanpaa for a higher draft pick and kept Haydn Fleury for depth probably with the intent to trade him in the off-season. Fast forward to today and the Hurricanes have more questions on the blue line than the team has had during the past three years. Brady Skjei has struggled a bit getting up to speed after his layoff for a concussion. Jake Bean has been up and down since a strong start and has looked to be in a bit over his head playing in a top 4 role in a few games with top players out of the lineup. Jake Gardiner struggled mightily mobility-wise in Monday’s loss and looked much more like the first half of 2019-20 version that struggled rather than the first half of 2020-21 version that was much better. Hakanpaas was a good addition to balance the third pairing, but it is not clear his ceiling is higher than that. In summary, the Hurricanes have a solid core of three defensemen and then some question marks after that. In the playoffs where being solid top to bottom is critical, I think the blue line is something to watch.
Home ice in the playoffs
The Hurricanes have home ice advantage for the two divisional rounds of the playoffs, but Monday’s loss jeopardizes that for the semifinals. If the Maple Leafs win their two remaining games, the Hurricanes would fall to third among division winners and would be set to be the road team in the third round if Toronto also emerges. But as I said on Twitter, the organization has won its last three road playoff games sevens, so maybe doing it the hard way is just more fun.
Thoughts on Nashville after the two losses to theme
As I said above, I think breaking through into the win column was important for the Predators and does increase their chances, but I do not think they found any kind of code to crack the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are still the better team in my opinion and should win the playoff series if they play well. The key there is ‘if they play well.’ The consecutive losses to the Predators do show how small the margin for error is in the NHL.
If the Hurricanes can re-find the significant special teams advantage that they had in the first six games and get equal or better goaltending, I think they win the series relatively easily. If the Predators have the upper hand in net and the Canes special teams advantage evaporates, I think the series becomes a dog fight. That is not to say the Hurricanes will not emerge. Rather, I would expect a long series with ups and downs.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you make of Monday’s lopsided loss? Does it impact the upcoming playoff series?
2) Lineup-wise, especially in net, would Monday’s game impact your decisions for the first game of the playoffs if you were Rod Brind’Amour?