After a gap year with the 2020 NHL Playoffs being in the bubble, Canes playoff hockey returned to PNC Arena with a fun first win. The 5-2 win overstates how easy it was, but the Hurricanes did reestablish themselves as the better team in the series and notched a first victory.
At the top level, a 5-2 win in the playoffs is always fun, and any kind of win is a good one. But a layer or two deeper, the game was more of a mixed bag than the score might indicate. The game started with a cautious feeling out for at least the first half of the first period and the pace and intensity were similar. If the Lightning/Panthers first game was 10/10 for intensity and pace (which I think it was), the Hurricanes opener probably rated a 4 out of 10 and likely would not have been good enough to beat either team in the first Florida showdown. But the playoffs are about winning the game in front of you, and the Hurricanes did that.
At the 12:14 mark of the first period, Nashville scored first when Filip Forsberg carved a path to the front of the net where Andrei Svechnikov got caught daydreaming a bit. Instead of closing him off and giving Nedeljkovic a chance to challenge far side, Forsberg cut in front of Svechnikov, opened up Nedeljkovic and finished. But the Canes would respond less than two minutes later when Teuvo Teravainen tipped a Brett Pesce shot past Juuse Saros to tie the score at 1-1. That is how the first period would end after a somewhat cautious start.
The Hurricanes would strike first in the second period when Jordan Staal used his strong stride to split two Predators defenders and then roof a shot from a seemingly impossible angle. But just before the midway point of the second period former-Cane Erik Haula would float an odd shot up and over Nedeljkovic who maybe was a bit impatient going down early only to have deflection float like a butterfly up over over him to tie the game at 2-2. At that midway point Nedeljkovic was maybe a bit shaky having given up two goals on 13 shots and more significantly having some trouble controlling pucks four times leaving rebounds laying the crease for scrambles. But the Hurricanes tightened up a bit giving up only two more shots on goal in the final 11 minutes of the second period which ended at 2-2.
The front part of the third period was more of the same. Nino Niederreiter scored on a feed from behind the net from Martin Necas to stake the Hurricanes to a 3-2 lead. And then eight minutes into the third period, Jordan Staal scored a goal that was the epitome of his line’s game. A Predator was first to a puck on the end wall behind the Nashville net but Staal got a piece of him to dislodge him from the puck. Warren Foegele arrived next winning a puck battle and then feeding Staal who finished from between the face-off circles to make if 4-2. From the point where Erik Haula scored to tie the game at 2-2, the Hurricanes dialed up the defense allowing only five lower-quality shots on net in the 19:19 before they built a two-goal lead. Andrei Svechnikov would add icing to the cake with an empty-netter to make a 5-2 final score.
The name of the game is winning this time of year, and the Canes did that handily.
Player and other notes
1) Jordan Staal
Staal was a physical force all night. Complemented well by his line mates, especially Warren Foegele, that trio won pucks and were difficult to play against all night. Staal won first star for his two goals, but the rest of his game was just as good. Taking a good percentage of the defensive zone draws per usual, Staal’s line kept the Canes out of trouble in when defending and did a good job of winning possession.
2) Brock McGinn as leader of the lunch pailers
Of the players not prominent on the score sheet, Brock McGinn was one who impressed me. McGinn drew two penalties (ignoring the offsetting embellishment call against him), had two decent scoring chances and was physical and engaged especially early on. Jordan Martinook also drew a penalty. Finally, the team’s first goal scored by Teravainen was actually the work of the fourth line with a partial change and Steven Lorentz and Jordan Martinook in the mix. In general, the players that the Canes need to match physical play and energy did exactly that. I note McGinn, but Martinook and Lorentz also filled this role well.
3) Mixed bag #1 — Niederreiter/Trocheck/Necas
In total, I thought Trocheck’s line was too quiet. The trio did not generate much for offense, especially through two periods. But the playoffs are a results business and given a chance to finish on a nifty pass from Necas with the game tied at 2-2 early in the third period, Niederreiter did exactly that. The line scores a plus for timely productivity but ideally will be more dangerous as the series progresses.
4) Mixed bag #2 — Teravainen/Aho/Svechnikov
I am on record as saying that deep playoff success will require Aho’s line to lead the way offensively. In that regard, I am torn on what to think of the trio on Monday. The scoring totals are a bit misleading. Svechnikov’s goal was an empty-netter in a 4-2 game that was all but over already. And Teravainen’s goal actually came with two fourth-liners in a partial change. So the trio did not really score together either at even strength or on the power play. But they did collect a whopping 18 shots on net. Half full says if they keep getting that many shots, the goals will follow. Half empty says that except for a couple chances, the quality could have been higher. Svechnikov’s game was definitely mixed as well. He got caught daydreaming and then did not finish or close on the first Nashville goal. Shortly after that, he seemed to regress a bit more trying a blind backhand across the offensive blue line. Fortunately, a Predator was not there to sprint off on a breakaway. Svechnikov’s first period was full of some of the ‘still learning’ part of his rookie season. But on the positive side, his defensive mishap did seem to serve as smelling salts the helped him find a higher gear physically. He was engaged finished a number of checks forcefully especially in the middle part of the game.
5) Brett Pesce and team defense
As noted above, the Hurricanes gave up very little in terms of grade A chances from break downs. Past the Forsberg goal noted above, I am not sure the Predators had another player in alone or a true 2-on-1. The best of their chances came from scrambles around the crease when Nedeljkovic had trouble corralling pucks early. As a team, the Canes were pretty solid defensively all night. I will call out Brett Pesce maybe just because he collected two points and was kind of enough to point at least two Predators toward the visitor’s locker room shortly after the game ended. (Did anyone else catch that and enjoy it as much as I did?) But a number of other Canes skaters could also be credited defensively.
6) Alex Nedeljkovic
Maybe I am just being too hard of a grader across the board, but I thought his game was yet another mixed bag. There is nothing not to like about winning his first NHL playoff start, and two goals against on 24 shots is easily a winnable effort too. And in a results business, you take every bit of of Monday’s win for Nedeljkovic. But looking past the top line numbers and results he struggled a bit. At the midway point of the game he had allowed two goals on 13 shots including Haula’s odd floater. At that point, Nedeljkovic had also left four pucks laying in his crease for hack and whack time. Luckily, Canes defenders found pucks before Nashville players or the Canes could have dug a much bigger hole early and met a different fate. No doubt there is enough there in the win that the game could serve to build confidence for game 2 and maybe slow the game down just a bit which could help with controlling or placing rebounds on Wednesday.
The biggest positive is the win obviously and moving a game closer to winning the series, but I think another significant positive is that the Hurricanes have room to improve despite winning 5-2.
Next up is game 2 on Wednesday at PNC Arena.