On Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes made the team’s first playoff appearance in a decade. In the process fully half of the 20-player lineup added his first NHL playoff game to his resume.
The 4-2 loss was obviously not what the Hurricanes wanted, and my ‘results matter’ mantra is truer than ever in the playoffs. But past the outcome, the game was a mixed bag. The Hurricanes might have shown a little bit of nerves in terms of moving the puck, but there was no tentativeness in the Canes compete level. That is significant since it is at the core of the Hurricanes identity and 2018-19 success. The Capitals showed their ability to quickly create grade A chances in transition, but in total the Hurricanes were strong in terms of puck possession and dictating play in 5-on-5 hockey. The Hurricanes issue was special teams play. The Capitals scored two quick goals in the first period on their first two power play chances and sprinted out to a lead in the process. The Hurricanes pushed back after that and ultimately climbed to within a single goal. But the team’s inability to convert on either of two power play opportunities late in the game sealed the Canes’ fate.
The result sets up an important game 2. With the first two games being in Washington, D.C., Saturday’s game is not a must win for the Hurricanes. But another loss makes the task even taller having to win four out of five games against a good Capitals squad. On the other hand, a Hurricanes win shortens the series to five games with three of those games at PNC Arena. Such is the margin this time of year with each individual game.
My watch points follow:
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) More of the same 5-on-5
The Hurricanes could benefit from a bit cleaner of an effort on Saturday (see below), but the basics of their play and effort at even strength were generally good on Thursday. The path to a series win will require the Hurricanes to continue to have the upper hand at even strength to tilt the ice into the offensive zone and help the Hurricanes make up for a deficit in sheer finishing ability with greater volume. The only issue at even strength was the Canes propensity to end up out of position in terms of coverage which resulted in a few too many grade A chances. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can bring the same level of pace, pressure and intensity and convert it to a bit more offensively.
2) In search of ugly goals
The Hurricanes did intermittently get pucks and bodies to the net on Thursday, but there is clearly a higher level in terms of making Holtby’s life challenging and scoring an ugly goal or two. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can generate more chances with traffic in front.
3) X-factor rising – special teams
In my preview for Thursday’s game, I listed special teams as an X-factor in my watch list. Special teams ultimately decided the game with the Capitals scoring on their first two power plays and riding that to a 3-0 lead early and ultimately a 4-2 win. The lesson could not be clearer. The Hurricanes would be best to a avoid a special teams battle. As such, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can avoid unnecessary penalties and if the team can come up with a few timely penalty kills if needed.
4) Heroes stepping up
On the Capitals side of the ledger, the combination of Ovechkin, Carlson, Kuznetsov and Backstrom accounting for all three non-empty net goals. Those four leaders had three goals and four assists to start out the series. On the Hurricanes side, Sebastian Aho and his line were too quiet. It took rookie Andrei Svechnikov to generate some offense. Here is hoping that the Hurricanes leaders can rise up and produce.
The puck drops a tiny bit after 3pm this time on NBCSN (not the usual Fox Sports Carolinas) with John (I believe) and the rest of the NBCSN broadcast team.