After a truly special seven-game series win over the defending champion Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes are right back on the ice only two days later.
Show me someone who claims that they predicted in October that there would be a Canes versus Isles match up in round 2 of the playoffs, and I will very likely be able to show you someone who is lying. But here we are.
The opponent is another Cinderella story in the New York Islanders. The Isles were left for dead last summer and chucked into the rebuilding category last summer when John Tavares left. But what I have deemed the best free agent acquisition of the summer when the team hired Head Coach Barry Trotz paid instant dividends. The combination of a young and hungry team and one of the best system/tactics coaches in the game resulted in a strong start that never really faded. Part 1 of my series preview assessed the Islanders in more depth.
For those hoping that round 2 would be prettier hockey with less of a grinding, war of attrition feel to it, your wish will not likely be granted. The Islanders were the #1 team in the entire NHL in terms of goals allowed and have a below average offense ranked 22nd in scoring. The Isles beat teams by making it difficult to exit the defensive zone, taking away any speed and cohesiveness through the middle of the rink by clogging up the neutral zone and then forcing everything to the outside for low-percentage shots in the offensive zone. To score on them often requires grinding station to station three times and then fighting to get the puck and people between the face-off circles for ugly goals. Put another way, for the Hurricanes it will likely again be more about will than skill.
On the Hurricanes side, the challenge for game 1 is simply rebounding. When the team takes the ice at Barclay’s center on Friday night, it will be barely over 40 hours from the end of the Capitals series. It is difficult to say if the Canes will enter with a rhythm from having played more recently or sluggishness from not having any time to recuperate. Especially since a key to the series will be fighting for inches in front of the crease, the Hurricanes will need to rebound quickly.
My watch points for Friday’s series opener follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Islanders
1) Rest (or is it rust) versus rhythm (or is weariness)
The Isles last played 10 days ago on April 16. That is one day after the Hurricanes first home game for game 3 of the Caps series. The Isles should have a significant advantage in terms of bumps, bruises and minor injuries that are common this time of year. But no team really wants 10 days off. Might the Isles be rusty out of the gate?
As noted above, the Hurricanes have barely woke up from winning a physical first-round series. In terms of attrition from the first round, the Canes called up Clark Bishop without sending Patrick Brown down which suggests that the team might need another reinforcement on Friday. That would likely suggest that Andrei Svechnikov or Micheal Ferland will not be ready yet and could also mean that after two games gutting it out that Jordan Martinook could again be questionable for Friday. Couple that with the physical beating that the first round series was, and the Hurricanes most certainly enter this game with more bumps, bruises and ailments than the Islanders. But the upside could be the rhythm. The Hurricanes have been playing intense hockey on an every other day basis since the playoffs started. Might they maintain their rhythm and catch the Isles trying to play their way back up to speed?
Regardless, the recent history physically for the two teams is definitely something worth watching in game 1.
2) Ability and maybe more importantly willingness on the Hurricanes part
As noted above, the Islanders specialty is just being miserable to play against in terms of mounting any speed or cohesiveness attacking with the puck. The process against the Isles can be to find a way sort out the forecheck to methodically advance out of the defensive zone. Then the neutral zone is where the Isles focus most basically making it an obstacle course. Then if the Canes can navigate those first two challenges, the Isles big defensemen and Trotz’s system are very good at funneling everything to the outside for low-percentage shots. The result is a perfect setup for a Canes loss of old where they pepper the goalie with 40+ weak shots but never really challenge offensively.
The key for the Hurricanes is trying to at least find some chances to get going in straight lines with pace even if requires dumping the puck and forechecking. The other key is showing the fortitude to play as much as possible between the face-off circles in the offensive game. This game and series sets up well for crease-crashing warriors like Warren Foegele, Jordan Staal, Brock McGinn, Justin Williams and others to win ugly. The willingness to keep doing that will be critical.
As such, in game 1 I will be watching to see if and how much the Hurricanes can move the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone and if once in the offensive zone, they make the concerted effort to get pucks and bodies to the top of the crease.
3) Turning to a new page
The Hurricanes first-round win was really a team effort. The combination of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen had a big contribution with a goal each in the game 7 win, and Teravainen was one of a couple players who got better as the series wore on. But in total, the Hurricanes top players offensively did not have a great series. Aho had a few key plays but was nothing close to the every shift difference-maker that he was when he peaked in January or February. Nino Niederreiter gets credit for competing at times but offered almost nothing in terms of production. Justin Williams chipped in but did not excel at least in terms of offensive production. But the Hurricanes found a way with depth scoring and timely goals. Having that formula as an option is a positive but better would be if a couple of the Hurricanes offensive leaders find a higher gear. By no means are the Islanders and their defensive system an easy match up, but just maybe something new/different works better for a couple Canes scoring leaders.
In Friday’s series opener, I will be watching to see if the new series seems to spark any of the quiet scoring leaders for the Canes.
4) Patience and solid defense
Arguably the biggest gap between the Islanders and the Capitals is raw scoring talent. The Islanders have some good young players, but their offense, a bit like the Hurricanes, is more driven by their system and opportunistically exploiting chances than it is driven by pure skill. As such, a key for the Hurricanes will be making the Islanders earn their scoring chances. That requires two things.
First, the Hurricanes must be sound defensively. No doubt, Barry Trotz saw and noted each and every time the Capitals used tactics off the rush that pushed the puck and the second player entering wide and then exploited the middle lane for passes and scoring opportunities. The Isles will no doubt borrow this tactic if they can get going in transition (which they are not as good at as Washington).
Second, the Hurricanes need to be patient. As noted above, there will inevitably be stretches of this series where generating anything offensively will be difficult. The Hurricanes need to avoid trying to jump start their offensive by gambling for goals. Poor decisions with the puck in trying to do too much have the potential to be the single greatest catalyst for the Islanders offense in this series.
So on Friday, I will be watching closely to hopefully see that the Hurricanes can stick to sound decision-making and be willing to patiently play a 2-1 kind of hockey game if trying to score more requires poor decision-making.
The puck drops at 7pm on NBCSN with at least John Forslund (I think) which is a blessing.