After two fun even if imperfect wins at home to start the series, the Hurricanes fell twice in double overtime in Nashville. Any kind of random lucky bounce goal late in regulation or through nearly two periods of overtime hockey twice and the Canes are up 3-1 trying to make quick work of the series tonight. But instead tied at 2-2, tonight’s game is truly a pivotal one for the series.
For the Hurricanes, I think the game is about a few themes:
1) Capitalizing on home ice. Though easier would have been preferred obviously, winning the series is still just about winning at home. Between the home crowd and last change to help the blue line a bit, that seems well within reason.
2) Finding a higher gear. The Hurricanes have not been horrible by any means, but at the same time they have been nowhere close to their regular season peak even in the two wins that were closer and much less dominant than the scores would indicate. Defensive acumen, the power play, and young players rising up are just a few of the areas where the team has the potential to be much better.
3) Cleaning up the mistakes. The game four loss was largely driven by self-inflicted wounds. Nashville has for long stretches struggled to generate more than pedestrian scoring chances, so if the Canes can force the Predators to earn their scoring chances, they should have the upper hand.
I think those themes are front and center for game five but also for finding the higher gear needed to go much deeper in the playoffs.
A few more specific watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Nashville Predators
After two long games that ended with losses, a day off following an early ending despite overtime because of the afternoon start and a return to home ice should hopefully be enough to reenergize. Early on, I will be watching to make sure that freshness and jump is in fact there.
2) The blue line
Sara Civian from The Athletic reported on Twitter that Jaccob Slavin was on the ice and paired with Dougie Hamilton for the morning skate. That would seem to suggest that he could be available which would be a huge addition. Quite frankly, the blue line is a bit of a mess without him right now. Skjei/Pesce have been incredibly good but run the risk of being overworked to the point of hitting a wall that could sink them now or even later in the playoffs. Hamilton’s woes in game 4 are well-documented and Jake Bean is far from an ideal steady partner to help settle that pairing down. Add in the need to play Hakanpaa closer to top 4 minutes and a decision to use an AHL defenseman in place of Jake Gardiner, and the whole group feels duct-taped together right now.
Slavin’s return even if he is a little less than 100 percent would be huge, but bigger picture the group in total needs to tighten up. I will be watching a number of things on that front. Can Hamilton bounce back? Learning by trial in high pressure environment, will Bean grow or just show that he is just really best suited for the third pairing? What can Brind’Amour and staff do on home ice with match ups to improve things a bit? Is there a path to winning a close game that does not require Skjei and Pesce to be up around 26-27 minutes of ice time per 60 minutes?
Games like this can often swing based on heroic play by one or a handful of players. The Hurricanes have a number of players who have been fairly quiet in the series and could theoretically be primed to rise up. But at the same time, remember that it was depth forward Warren Foegele who led the way in 2019 when the Canes were down 2-0 against the Capitals and needed to find a spark. The bottom forwards have been very good in terms of pace and pressure and have even chipped in offensively. If I was Brind’Amour, I would consider giving someone like McGinn some shifts on a higher line. The players who should in theory be better scoring options are not finding it yet, so just maybe someone like McGinn can. He did exactly that for a short stretch playing on Aho’s line early in the regular season. Regardless, I will be watching to see which, if any, players can rise up to be difference-makers.
4) Special teams
During the regular season, the Hurricanes had a massive edge on special teams against the Predators. That has not materialized in the playoffs with the power play languishing a bit. Each of the first four games has been either tied or a one-goal game for much of the third period. If that continues on Tuesday, a single power play goal for or against could be the difference. I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can find a higher gear on special teams, especially the power play.
The puck drops at 8:07pm at PNC Arena.