A glorious and surreal return of hockey
After a long layoff and only a single exhibition game that had at least as many negatives as positives, no one (legitimately) knew exactly what to expect in the Carolina Hurricanes match up against the New York Rangers that kicked off the 2020 NHL Playoffs.
For Canes fans, the unveiling of the great mystery was a pleasant surprise. The game in general started with a bang for the entire NHL. The game was physical with finished checks and a few big hits right from the opening puck drop, an early goal from Jaccob Slavin and even a fight between Justin Williams and Ryan Strome just in case someone needed an exclamation point.
After a journey that many thought would not actually culminate in games, hockey was very clearly back.
As I said on Twitter shortly after the game ended:
The return of @Canes hockey was nothing short of glorious with physical start, Jaccob Slavin goal and Justin Williams fight.
It's only game 1, but given the broader situation in our world and the LONG journey since the last game more than 4 months ago, it feels surreal.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) August 1, 2020
More than an hour after the finish of the game, it still feels surreal to me.
Recap for the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 win over the New York Rangers
As noted above, the game had a physical tone from the very beginning. Brady Skjei leveled former teammate Jesper Fast. Martin Necas was similarly toppled. And across the board, checks were consistently finished. Just to make sure the energy level was dialed up to an appropriate level despite the long layoff and lack of fans in the seats, Justin Williams and Ryan Strome squared off in a good fight after a penalty call.
The biggest story out of the gate and ultimately the deciding factor in the game was the Hurricanes forecheck. The Canes had a decided edge from the get go. The result was a majority of the play in the Rangers zone and a few decent chances. Jaccob Slavin scored only 1:01 into the game on a pretty Teuvo Teravainen pass threaded across the ice. Vincent Trocheck clanged a post after beating Henrik Lundqvist from short range. And in general, the Hurricanes were buzzing and getting the better of things throughout the first period. One could say that the Hurricanes defense was solid too, but that really misses the point that because of the forecheck the Hurricanes really did not have to defend in the first period. Petr Mrazek was mostly untested but did make consecutive timely saves late in the first period to preserve the 1-0 lead. The Hurricanes poured on some shots late but Lundqvist settled in. The first period finished with the Canes holding a 1-0 lead and a 25 to 9 advantage for shot attempts.
The Canes momentum was derailed a bit to start the second period when the team had to kill off a carry over penalty and then took another shortly into the second period. The second period in general was a power play exchange program. Including the Canes penalty that carried over from the first period, the teams combined for eight penalties in a tightly called game. By the end of the second period, the Hurricanes had killed off seven penalties. That is obviously too many. But the disjointed play driven by special teams did not slow the Hurricanes train. After killing off two penalties, the Hurricanes went up 2-0 on a pretty play on the power play that saw Andrei Svechnikov laser a pass to Sebastian Aho at the top of the crease. Aho deftly deflected it straight into the net. Around the series of penalties, the Hurricanes continued to control the game at even strength courtesy of a forecheck that tilted the ice into the offensive zone. But despite having the upper hand throughout, the game changed when the Rangers clawed back to 2-1 on a late second period goal by Mika Zibanejad. Petr Mrazek had no chance on the deflection. But the Canes escaped the second period still clinging to the same one goal lead that it entered with.
The third period had a bit more flow with only two penalties against the Rangers and none against the Canes. Trying to notch a tying goal, the Rangers pushed a bit a even strength for the first time in the game and mostly had the upper hand for the first half of the third period. But the Hurricanes avoided break downs and gave Mrazek a chance. In addition, the fourth line of Martinook/Geekie/McGinn was the team’s best early in the third period and did a great job playing offensive zone hockey for their shifts to relieve pressure. After doing more surviving than thriving for the first half of the third period, the Hurricanes gained some breathing room when Martin Necas opportunistically fired off of Marc Staal’s skate and right past Lundqvist to put the Canes up 3-1. The Hurricanes seemed destined to cruise to somewhat comfortable win until lackadaisical play on the power play afforded the Rangers a scoring chance and a shorthanded goal. That made for a bit of a white-knuckler down the stretch, but the Hurricanes hung on for a 3-2 win that they deserved.
Especially in a short five-game series, winning regardless of formula is everything, but the Canes style of play and effectiveness on the forecheck bodes well for the path ahead.
Player and other notes
1) THE FORECHECK
The Canes forecheck in the first period and then intermittently in the second around the penalties was the story of the game. I am on record as saying that whoever wins the forecheck wins the series, and that was the Canes by a wide margin on Saturday. The Hurricanes blue line/defense looked leaps and bounds better on Saturday as compared to Wednesday. But that was very much a story of having to play less defense, especially under duress. For those who watched the game, try to think of Rangers’ chances at even strength in the first half of the game where they had numbers and/or speed through the neutral zone. The game was almost completely devoid of Canes defensemen making great plays defending odd man rushes, one on ones with speed or opposing players going to the front of the net. The best defense is a good offense (forecheck) in this case, and for me that was the deciding factor in the game.
2) The penalty kill
Another key to the game was the Hurricanes penalty kill. Despite having the upper hand at even strength, this game was definitely teed up to be decided by special teams because of the volume. The referees called the game tightly. That combined with a few sloppy penalties saw the Hurricanes have to kill off seven penalties. That is not a recipe for continued success, but on Saturday the Canes penalty kill as up to the task all seven times and a key factor in the win.
3) The fourth line (Martinook/Geekie/McGinn) in the third period
When the Rangers did push in the third period, a rested Canes fourth line was the team’s best. The trio of Jordan Martinook, Morgan Geekie and Brock McGinn consistently pushed play into the offensive zone and kept it there for their shifts. The potentially big reward was a near miss when Jake Gardiner was robbed by Lundqvist on a scoring chance on one of their shifts. But even without scoring, that line did a lot to relieve pressure during the one stretch where the Rangers had the upper hand.
4) Best over best
One of the story lines from the Rangers’ regular season sweep was the Rangers best forwards outdoing the Canes best forwards. Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin wreaked havoc. In Saturday’s win, both did factor in the scoring, but Panarin in particular was mostly a non-factor. He picked up an assist on the late shorthanded goal. Meanwhile, Sebastian Aho’s line had a strong game factoring in on two goals. As notable as the scoring success was the fact that Aho’s line also logged a good amount of ice time against Panarin. Jordan Staal’s line did also play against Panarin a decent amount, but this was not a case of Brind’Amour steering Aho away from that match up. So while Staal’s line (with Williams and a combination of Foegele and McGinn) does deserve credit for holding Panarin in check as unsung heroes, Aho’s line also played a role in that important victory.
5) Petr Mrazek
I was in the minority in terms of voting to stick with Petr Mrazek as the game 1 starter despite the fact that Reimer was better in the lone exhibition game. Brind’Amour opted to stick with Mrazek based on bigger picture and not be swayed by 60 minutes of exhibition hockey after a long layoff. I think there is a good chance that Brind’Amour will start Reimer in game 3 which is the second half of a back-to-back, but I think not going knee-jerk with the goalie situation out of the gate keeps stability.
No doubt, Lundqvist was the more challenged goalie in the game, but Mrazek was sharp and close to flawless. The two goals against were both deflections that gave him little chance. Otherwise in a game that did not allow much margin for error Mrazek was solid.
6) Vincent Trocheck
He did not net anything to show for it on the score sheet, but Vincent Trocheck built on his strong game on Wednesday with another on Saturday. He logged 18:26 of ice time which was second among the Canes centers (below Aho but notably above Staal). That bodes well for the Canes finding/maintaining balance through the forward lineup.
7) The blue line
In total, the blue line was a hot mess in Wednesday’s exhibition game. As noted above, the group faced much less pressure/duress in Saturday’s game because of the forecheck, but they do also deserve credit for playing a much sounder game.
I have at times been a detractor for Brady Skjei, so importantly giving credit where it is due, I really liked his game on Saturday. He made good decisions defensively and aggressively used his mobility to pressure up into the neutral zone when the forecheck was winning at the first layer. Skjei also used his skating ability to push up when the offense attacked off the rush.
I also liked Sami Vatanen. He is an understated version of sound and steady that just not look spectacular visually. His mobility especially in a straight line is ‘meh’, but a couple things jump out about his game. First is that he is very good with the puck on his stick despite not having Jaccob Slavin or Brady Skjei ability to just gallop up ice and out of trouble. He protects the puck well and exhibits an incredible amount of patience. I counted three plays where he had the puck on his stick in the defensive zone without much of anything for an outlet or skating lane. In all three cases, he managed to wait things out and play the puck to a Canes stick either laterally or up ice. Conservative defensemen like Fleury or Edmundson almost almost flip the puck forward to the safety of the neutral zone. That averts a costly turnover but usually does so at the expense of turning the puck over and having to defend again. The best example was a third period play where Vatanen had the puck in his own end with no outlet. He managed pick an angle, carry the puck a bit and then protect it until he could reach the center line and play it forward. I also continue to like the simplicity of his game on the power play. He has a good understanding of when he does/does not have a shooting lane and a propensity to use it if he has it. As I said on Twitter during the game, I think he will fit really nicely on a work boots and hard hats second power play unit once Dougie Hamilton returns. His propensity to shoot the puck makes for a great predictable but often effective system that seeks point shots and traffic in the form of big bodies like Jordan Staal, Just Williams or whoever else is available for the second unit.
After a very rare sub-par game (it was an exhibition) on Wednesday, Jaccob Slavin was also back to his normal self. The goal was huge obviously, but just as significant was his normal steady play defensively.
Up next is another 12pm match up on Monday. Block your lunchtime plus some Caniacs!