After two rousing home wins in an electric atmosphere at PNC Arena earlier this week, the Hurricanes return to Washington, D.C. where they will try to solve the Capitals on the road. On the one hand, the Hurricanes are right where they want to be right now. On the other hand, the Canes still need to find a way to collect a win on the road.
The shift back to Washington has a couple interesting story lines. Last night, I wrote in some detail about the call up of Aleksi Saarela and the Hurricanes depleted forward ranks. The Warren Foegele hit that injured T.J. Oshie continues to be its own side story. To what degree, if any, that will impact Saturdays’ game is yet to be determined. And I think the adjustments on the road are also very interesting.
I really think that Saturday is a must-win for the Capitals. If the Caps lose a third straight game and yield home ice advantage, the ball is on the tee for the Canes to ride that momentum to a series win at home on Monday. On the Hurricanes side, the easier path to a series win definitely goes through a win on Saturday, but the possibility of winning again at home and then finding a way in game 7 on the road is also a very real possibility.
The transition to the road
In terms of Saturday’s match up, I see three transition points as most important.
First is the Capitals trying to regain momentum after two consecutive losses. Thursday’s game was much more even, but the Hurricanes still carry the momentum right now. Can home ice reverse that for the Capitals?
Second is the switch to road hockey. The Hurricanes struggled with the match ups in Washington in games 1 and 2. In Washington, Faulk and Pesce struggled mightily trying to defend Washington’s best. At home, the duo righted the ship and really did a complete 180 at home. With inexperienced players in the mix at forward and the Capitals able to dictate match ups against defensemen, will this series revert back to the Hurricanes’ defensive struggles at times in games 1 and 2? Or has the team solidified defensively such that there is a carry over from games 3 and 4?
Third is trying to generate more offense. Ideal is for the forecheck to be utterly dominant like game 3 which makes for plenty of scoring chances for everyone. But if that does not happen, can this group generate enough scoring chances? The Hurricanes lineup is heavy on players who lean defense and grinding over raw scoring and also has a couple players with minimal NHL experience inserted. Can Aho and company find a higher gear? If not, can the Hurricanes muster enough forecheck-generated or battle for the crease scoring chances and goals?
The story lines are many for a pivotal game 5. My specific watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) The road defense and match ups
The Hurricanes blue line struggled at times in games 1 and 2 in Washington. In particular, Faulk and Pesce were victimized regularly. The basic approach was simple which was the move the puck wide on the rush, keep the first two forwards entering wide and then exploit the middle lane for players to slash through. With Brind’Amour picking match ups and the forecheck smothering the Capitals, the Canes looked much better defensively at home. The return of Calvin de Haan also makes the Canes deeper defensively and gives Brind’Amour more options if he wants to change up the pairings. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the strong blue line defense from Raleigh continues or if instead the Caps are able to intermittently exploit match ups like in games 1 and 2.
2) 12 deep at forward
With the Capitals having last change on home ice, there will be a few on paper mismatches, so all four lines must be competent defensively. Brind’Amour will shorten the bench if he feels it necessary, but he cannot play the entire game with eight or nine forwards. It will be critical is for the reinforcements and depth players to contribute something and be sound defensively. Players like Brown, Maenalanen and McKegg need to push the forecheck and finish checks. Saarela ideally needs to put himself in position to shoot the puck and ideally finish one. The entire group needs to hold its own defensively. I will be watching to see if the reinforcements hold their own, contribute and at least not be a minus defensively and also how and how much Brind’Amour utilizes them.
3) The forecheck effectiveness for both teams
From the beginning, I said that this series would be decided by the effectiveness of each team’s forecheck and resulting ability to move the puck up the ice. Game 3 was a master class in how good the Hurricanes can be when the team’s forecheck takes over a game. The key to the series continues to be the Canes ability to move the puck from their own end while at the same time limiting the Capitals ability to do so. On Saturday, I will be watching to see which team gains the upper hand in terms of moving the puck.
4) The offensive leadership
If one looks at the playoff series that have already ended, the story for the winners is top players rising up and dominating series. For Columbus, Duchene and Panarin tore it up offensively while Kucherov and Stamkos were largely frustrated. The Isles held Crosby to a single point while Eberle scored four goals and Barzal had five assists. The Avs win was the story of MacKinnon, Rantanen and company outplaying the Flames stars by a wide margin. Not surprisingly, the team whose best players play best almost always wins NHL playoff series.
As the series has advanced, the Hurricanes have received more contributions from its top scorers. Teravainen’s game-winner on Thursday was obviously a huge one. Aho has collected three points in four games and looked very good in game 3. But in terms of scoring production for best against best, the Hurricanes are still on the wrong side of that equation. The Canes balance has pushed the series to 2-2, but I still think it takes at least one huge game from Aho and company to propel the Canes to a series victory. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes offensive leaders can find a higher gear.
The puck drops at 8pm on national TV on NBC.