Playing the defending Stanley Cup Champions on Saturday in the first of a four-game set, the Hurricanes probably showed exactly what peak Canes hockey looks like for 2020-21. The 4-0 final was maybe inflated a little bit by an empty net goal and the fact that the the Lightning did not catch a break netting a random bounce goal or similar. But nonetheless, the game was one of the Hurricanes two best games thus far in the season. The other game that I have bookmarked as comparable is the Hurricanes similarly one-sided 4-1 win against a Dallas Stars team that entered the game playing well and sporting a perfect 4-0 mark.
The Canes scoring goals in bunches has been a regular feature throughout the 2020-21 season in both better and lesser games, but what stood out in Saturday’s win over the Lightning was the suddenly sound defensive play. The Hurricanes gave up very little in terms of grade A chances and/or odd man rushes caused by puck management or defensive coverage issues. The result was the Lightning entering the offensive zone all night with no advantage or great opportunities to attack. From that came a reasonable chance to see stop pucks on nearly all Tampa Bay shot attempts. Alex Nedeljkovic was obviously very good in notching his first NHL shutout, but he was not required to be a savior or stand on his head to do so. He only needed to be solid. Meanwhile in the other direction, Tampa Bay was similarly pretty good not giving up a ton when the Hurricanes were forced to move the puck 200 feet or close to attack. But the difference in the game was the Hurricanes’ ability to pressure and create turnovers and scoring chances with their forecheck.
That combination of giving up nothing easy for the opponent and at the same time being able to generate offense from the forecheck is what peak Canes hockey looks like, and it is also I think what it takes to win in the playoffs when good teams offer little for easy offense.
We are only on game 18 of a 56-game season, so reading too much into a second impressive win in terms of playoff results would be way premature. But seeing how the Hurricanes perform if a good Lightning team pushes back after being whooped 4-0 will be interesting to see. That too has an element of what playoff hockey is like with good teams trading punches.
That setup drives my watch points for tonight’s rematch.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Responding to a push back
Be it a fast start, more physical play, frustration and old school fisticuffs or a strong push at some point during the game, I would expect Tampa Bay to push back hard at some point in this game. Regardless of what form it takes possibly being multiple, I will be watching to see how the Hurricanes respond.
2) More of the same in terms of defensive coverage and puck management
As noted above, the most impressive element of Saturday’s win was the Hurricanes suddenly stepped up puck management and defensive play. After a run of multiple weeks that saw many games of sloppy play and that regard trumped by boatloads of scoring, the Hurricanes found a significantly higher gear defensively. Was that a one-game event? Or was that the Hurricanes tightening things up and rounding into form? Monday offers a first data point in terms of trying to figure that out.
3) Best against best
Being competitive across a full roster is table stakes to be successful deep in the playoffs. Without it, a team runs into too many mismatches that put it at a disadvantage and usually result in an insurmountable deficit. But most, if not all, of the teams with the potential to win it all have those table stakes. At that point, most playoff series are decided by which team’s best players are better. The Hurricanes top players have not been bad in the past two playoffs by any means, but I do think it is fair to say that in both playoff series losses that the Bruins best players were better. In Saturday night’s win, the Hurricanes top players were better. After some ups and downs, the Slavin/Hamilton pairing had one of its best games, and the second pairing led by Brett Pesce continued to be strong. And the Canes top line had a strong game. That was the difference. On Monday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes top players can repeat a strong performance and again be better than a strong group of opponents.
The puck drops at PNC Arena at 7:07pm with coverage on Fox Sports Carolinas with Tripp, Mike, Abby and Shane.