After a nearly 10-year wait, playoff hockey returns for the Caniac Nation with the Hurricanes taking on the defending Stanley Cup Champions in game one in Washington, D.C.
The experts (maybe rightfully) have the Hurricanes as a significant underdog, and the experts are nearly unanimously picking the Capitals to roll forward. With the Capitals four-game sweep of the regular season series and the Capitals status as the defending champions, the Capitals are favored by a decent margin. But at the same time, anything can happen in the playoffs.
The path to a first-round upset very often follows a game one win by the underdog on the road. Such a win forces the higher seed to deal with more pressure and possibly adversity from the outset of the series while building confidence for the underdog and allowing them to play loose. Such a win would also mean that the Canes at a minimum return home to a five-game series with three games at home. Sure it will hopefully be a long series, but stealing game one would be huge.
Finally, for Caniacs new and old today is truly a day to appreciate, absorb and just enjoy. The players deserve it. We deserve it. In addition, with the young core of the team I view the 2019 playoffs as proof that the next rising of Hurricanes hockey is underway.
IT IS A PLAYOFF HOCKEY DAY FOR THE CAROLINA HURRICANES! WOOOOOOOO!!!!!
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) Pace and intensity in the restart after a layoff an given the magnitude of the game
Even during the good part of the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes played their best when playing regularly. Not counting the extended All-Star break/bye week layoff, my count says that the Hurricanes were an abysmal 1-6 with three or more days rest before games. On the one hand, I think the team could benefit from a reset after a long grind and the ups and downs that came with the successful playoff push. Recharging and starting anew could be a positive. On the other hand, recent history suggests that the team generally has not been sharp after breaks. Add in the dialed up intensity and magnitude of a playoff game, and I will be watching to see how the Hurricanes start in terms of crispness and cohesiveness. Will the Canes struggle early to connect the dots with passes and sort things out defensively when pressured with pace? Or will the Canes look renewed and ready for the next run?
2) Adjustments and success handling the Capitals forecheck
The story line from the two most recent losses to the Capitals was the Hurricanes inability to advance the puck from their own end. I am on record as saying that that more than any other factor could decide this series. The Hurricanes are at their peak when playing fast and in straight lines up through the neutral zone. That sets up some chances to attack off the rush, but at a minimum it sets the team’s forecheck which is its bread and butter. If the Canes play through the offensive zone with pace, everything else flows. If instead, they try to haphazardly navigate it like it is a brain teaser like the two previous losses, the result tends to be too many turnovers in bad places. The Capitals scheme was not simply an all the time aggressive forecheck. Rather, the Capitals alternated opportunistic three forwards up aggression with sitting back one layer to defend forwards and take away the first pass. The Hurricanes never really were able to read it correctly and attack it. The team needs to be better moving the puck, but Brind’Amour and his staff also need to make adjustments.
A couple angles on that:
–The Hurricanes defensemen need to be able to read the situation and figure out when the primary defense is at the pass level and need to use their legs to advance the puck by carrying it into openings to put pressure on the neutral zone defenders to sort out a different situation.
–Instead of just floating in the neutral zone, the forwards need to be more cognizant of passing lanes and how to make themselves available.
Shorter version is that the Hurricanes need to be much better at moving the puck out of their own end and through the neutral zone. I will be watching early to see what adjustments the Hurricanes have made and how effective they are.
3) Sticking to the Hurricanes game
Playing well defensively will obviously be important against any good team, but the path to doing so for the Hurricanes is not to become overly cautious. The path to the best defense for the Hurricanes is their puck-hounding style that takes away time and space and smothers opponents before they really get to play offense. On Thursday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes bring that same aggressive style into the playoffs.
4) X-factor #1 — Goaltending
In any given game or series this time of year, goaltending can trump all else. Braden Holtby is among the league’s best when he is on and has carried the team for stretches in the playoffs in the past. Petr Mrazek has been red hot of late. The potential exists for one or both goalies to steal a game which is a huge benefit when only needing to win four. I will be watching to see if Mrazek can transition his hot play into the playoffs. I will also be watching to see if the Hurricanes do the right work to get pucks and bodies to the net to make things difficult for Holtby and hopefully rack up a few ugly goals.
5) X-factor #2 — Special teams
As noted in my series previews, the Hurricanes strength is rolling lines and playing 5-on-5 hockey. Even during the 2019 winning run into the playoffs, the Hurricanes were at times plagued by sloppy games with too many penalties. With the Capitals high-end scorers, trading power plays is very likely to have a bad ending. Best for the Hurricanes would be to clean up their game and minimize special teams’ role in deciding the series. But whenever a special teams opportunity does arise, I will be watching to see if it can generate a momentum-changing goal.
The puck drops at 7:30pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.