Playoff time is a time when results trump all else. So especially for a Hurricanes team that was trying to rebound quickly after finishing up a taxing seven-game series only two days earlier, any kind of was going to be a good one in game 1 against the Islanders. In that regard, Friday’s 1-0 overtime win was a thing of beauty. In addition, with the start on the road, the Hurricanes have already had a good trip to Brooklyn. Even with a loss on Sunday, returning home tied in the series makes it a five-game series with three games in Raleigh. Sunday’s game is also playing with house money in terms of trying to seize control of the series with a 2-0 lead on the road. So in all respects, the series is incredibly good looking backwards.
At a high level, what stands out most about game 1 is that the Islanders pretty much had the game they wanted but still did not collect a win. The game was a grinding, defensive affair for the most part. And to plan, the Islanders did generate some opportunistic offense from Canes puck management miscues. And at least of the opening gate, the Isles leveraged their rest for a physical advantage. But largely courtesy of Petr Mrazek, the Canes stole an important game 1 win.
Looking forward, the Hurricanes will need to elevate their play as the series progresses to gain three more wins. First, the Hurricanes should find a higher gear in terms of pace but maybe not until after a return home and an extra day off. Another key to finding more goals will be more stretches of extended offensive zone time combined with ingredients for ugly goals — basically bodies and pucks between the face-off circles.
But at the same, another ‘just find a way’ win that leans a bit too heavily on Petr Mrazek would be just as welcome.
My watch points for game 2 follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Islanders
1) A higher gear
By no means were the Hurricanes horrible on Friday, but there was a noticeable drop in pace and crispness. Part of that was certainly due to the Islanders defensive system that converts the neutral zone into an obstacle course. But part of it was likely just due to the immediate transition to a second series for the Hurricanes. At some point, the Hurricanes will need to re-find a higher gear. Though it would not be a surprise if that is delayed until game 3 after an extra day off between games and a couple days at home, idea would be to find the boost on Sunday. I will be watching early in the game to see if the Hurricanes can find a higher gear in terms of pace.
2) Between the dots
Early on, the Islanders had their way pushing the Hurricanes to the outside in the offensive zone. As the game wore on, the Hurricanes were better at intermittently getting players to the top of the crease and at least trying to play offense between the face-off dots. The key to doing this is twofold. First is making a concerted effort to push into the middle. That is mostly about effort, heart and sometimes being willing to pay the price. The second factor is a combination of patience and possession time. The path to the front of the net often is not available off the rush against Islanders defensemen who squeeze to the middle to force the puck outside. I think the key for the Hurricanes is to mostly avoid the temptation to fling low-percentage shots from outside if there is no traffic to the crease yet. Better is to use the space to the outside to get all five players into the zone, sometimes cycle the puck and allow time for the third forward to get to the front of the net. That puck possession preference has the potential to generate more ‘chaos at the crease’ type chances than what is available off the rush without an odd man advantage. The shorter version is that I will be watching to see if Brind’Amour and his team make any adjustments in terms of how they attack the Islanders defensive system.
3) Puck management
If there was an omen of potentially bad things to follow from game 1, it would be the Canes sloppiness managing the puck at dangerous transition points on the ice. In the first period alone Justin Williams, Jaccob Slavin and one other player (missed notes on third one) had turnovers at blue lines that led quickly to dangerous chances the other way. Somewhat like the Hurricanes, the Islanders offense is at its best when fueled by their defense. Mrazek had an answer for everything on Friday, but hoping to repeat the combination of turning the puck over in bad places too often and managing a shutout is unlikely. Going a step further, that issue more than anything else plays into the hands of a winning formula for the Islanders.
4) Capitalizing on a safer game?
I think part of the issue for the Canes skill players like Aho in the Capitals series was how dangerous it was carrying the puck against the Capitals. Players like Aho and Teravainen have good enough hockey sense and vision that they are fine against players coming from in front of them. The Capitals are a bit different in that players like Ovechkin, Wilson and Eller are a different challenge in a couple respects. First, they are not fourth-line grinders but rather are all are top players who are on the ice regularly against the opponent’s best players. But the bigger issue is that both Ovechkin and Wilson are huge, mobile and a bit unpredictable. They tend to fly around without regard for lanes or positions. The result is the potential for someone like Aho to get completely drilled by a player coming from across the ice or an odd angle where he really would not expect pressure. The Islanders are also big at forward and physical, so nothing is different in that regard. But the Islanders are tighter positionally in their system such that navigating the rink with the puck on your stick is a bit more predictable. The game is still faster and more physical than regular season hockey, but my thinking is that there is some potential that players like Aho and Teravainen will be more comfortable playing the game with the puck on their stick from the center line in. So with 60+ minutes of hockey against the Islanders to draw from, I will be watching to see if Aho and others can play more with the puck on their sticks and generate more offense in the process.
The puck drops just after 3pm on NBC with John Forslund with the call.