With two road wins in their pocket, the Hurricanes return home for game 3 with a commanding lead in their second round playoff series versus the New York Islanders. But those who think that sprinting to an early series win is a foregone conclusion have a short memory in terms of playoff hockey. The Hurricanes are only one loss away from the 2-1 status as the other three playoff series. The margin of victory in both New York wins was tiny. And the Barry Trotz-led Capitals were down 2-0 with two road losses last season and stormed back to win a series.
Shorter version — The Hurricanes are in a tremendous place right now but only if they keep the pedal down and continue pushing forward and do not pause, let up and leave the door cracked open for the Islanders.
On the ice, game 3 will likely feature a significant changeover in personnel. After playing well in relief in game 2, Curtis McElhinney will make his first start of the playoffs. Haydn Fleury will likely draw back into the lineup in place of the injured Trevor van Riemsdyk. And at least one of Andrei Svechnikov or Jordan Martinook seems likely to draw back into the lineup to replace an injured Saku Maenalanen. On the Isles side, Cal Clutterbuck is expected to miss the game due to injury which could disrupt the Islanders fourth line that is the team’s ignition switch physically.
The tactical side of the game should also be interesting. After consecutive losses, one might expect master tactician Barry Trotz to make changes. But the two games in New York were really pretty close to what Trotz would have wanted minus the fact the fact that the Isles failed to put the puck in the net for two whole games (the lone goal was an own goal on an odd deflection). The game is also in Raleigh which means Brind’Amour will have more control of the match ups. Though the situation suggests that Trotz just needs to be patient and hope for a few bounces in the form of goals, it will still be interesting to see what adjustments he makes to try to gain an advantage.
Wednesday’s game is a significant fork in the road between the easy path and the playoff grind. With a win and a 3-0 series lead the Hurricanes odds of winning the series push north of 90 percent. With a loss, the Hurricanes still maintain an advantage, but the series looks much more like another long, grinding series.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Islanders
1) Curtis McElhinney
His demeanor and make up as a veteran who rates high for calm and has been through everything is a perfect fit for being a backup in the playoffs. That showed on Sunday when he was suddenly thrust into action at the midway point of the game when Petr Mrazek was injured. McElhinney made a few good saves instantly which surely did wonders for the team in front of him and then just generally went on to look like he had been playing regularly and did not miss a beat. But behind his perfect 17 for 17 performance, the Isles hit three posts in the third period, so one could argue they did beat him multiple times but just narrowly missed. Best bet is that McElhinney just continues to look unfazed and ready. But one should not ignore the fact that McElhinney started exactly one hockey game in April, and that was 25 days ago. On Wednesday, I will be watching closely to see if McElhinney looks sharp out of the gate and ready to play at his top level in a game where a single bad goal could be the difference.
2) The home ice boost and the forecheck
The Hurricanes are 3-0 at PNC Arena so far in the playoffs. Game 1 of the Capitals series was a resounding 5-0 blow out in which the Hurricanes got their forecheck going early and were fueled by the home crowd. Despite collecting two road wins, the Hurricanes were nowhere near their top level in New York. ‘Just find a way’ is a key component of any playoff run, but there must also be an element of playing at a peak level. With 2 wins and a return home, on paper this series sets up to be a perfect mix of that. On Wednesday, I will be watching to see if a return home and an extra day off can be the recipe for the Canes to transition from ‘just find a way’ to ‘dominant forecheck surge’.
3) Inside the face-off circles
Despite not scoring much, I actually thought the Hurricanes consistent commitment to getting pucks and bodies between the face-off circles was mostly good in each of the first two games. Critical for the Hurricanes is not to become overconfident and trade in their lunch pails and hard hats for artists’ paint brushes. The path to victory against the Isles and Robin Lehner continues to be a concerted effort to play offense in front of the crease. On Wednesday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes are again willing and able to push the game inside the face-off circles in the offensive zone.
4) Rod Brind’Amour on home ice
In a game where scoring is at a premium, can Rod Brind’Amour exploit home ice and the last change to find a few favorable match ups and an extra goal or two. With Dougie Hamilton bumped down to the third pairing right now, can Brind’Amour opportunistically use him in good scoring situations like a fourth forward? Is there a forward line match up that gives the Hurricanes an advantage and the sizable burst of consistent offense in the series? With van Riemsdyk out of the lineup, how does Brind’Amour utilize match ups and also strike a balance between just riding his top 5 defensemen and keeping everyone fresh? On Wednesday, I will be watching to see how Brind’Amour manages the game and match ups on home ice and if he can find an advantage or two.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.