After an exhilarating 1-0 overtime win with a COVID-depleted roster and then a stellar win in the first of a four-game set, things have taken a turn for the worse in the past two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is still early in the season and the Hurricanes are in great position, so the amount of ‘sky is falling’ that could be triggered by another loss will be way overdone. But that said, the unique 2020-21 schedule that offered an unprecedented four-game regular season set does offer a good evaluation point on many fronts.
There are many possible individual watch points including if/how the Canes top players rebound, how James Reimer looks in net, if the Hurricanes can play a more cohesive game in terms of moving the puck, etc.
But at the end of the day, I my watch points boil down to do broader things:
1) A response and measure of character
When the Hurricanes beat Tampa Bay soundly in the first game of the set, the Lightning responded in game 2 by dialing up the intensity and aggressiveness. The Bolts dominated the first period of that next game and were the better team throughout. Coming off a similarly decisive loss on Wednesday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can use it as motivation to find a higher gear.
The story of game one was sound defensive play in both directions actually in terms of managing the puck at dangerous transition points and also mostly eliminating chances gained from flying 180 feet up the ice on the rush and generating chances. Neither team generated its usual offense in that manner. Where the Canes won was by turning the puck over (or keeping it in) in the offensive zone for quick transition chances via the forecheck.
Fast forward to game 2 and that is where the Lightning initially tilted the ice. They forechecked aggressively, but maybe more subtly but also significantly, the Lightning started aggressively gapping up on first passes. Instead of being able to use a first pass to get going north-south with speed, those first passes were contested. Without enough for puck support, the Hurricanes found themselves stuck in the neutral zone or trying to just advance pucks without possession. Especially in game 3, the Hurricanes did not seem to have an answer. Much as it works in the playoffs, Brind’Amour and his staff have limited time before a quick turnaround to try to make a couple small but significant adjustments to better support the puck after a first pass with the goal of more cohesively moving the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. With Tampa Bay defenseman aggressively gapping as far as the blue line in the neutral zone, the potential is also there for stretch passes if the Hurricanes can/find make passing lanes that skip the first obvious pass that is being regularly challenged.
In the defensive zone, Tampa Bay made a concerted effort to give some space (and a couple picks) to skating defensemen Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev to carry the puck on the perimeter and deep in the offensive zone to force the Hurricanes defense to sort out switches and coverage decisions under a bit of pressure. What, if anything, the Hurricanes can do to clog things up a bit to take away skating lanes is also worth watching.
At a more general level, the four-game series represents a good chance to see if/how well the Hurricanes can make quick adjustments to gain advantages or eliminate disadvantages.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with Tripp, Mike, Abby and Shane.