In the sense that collecting four wins any way possible is all that really matters in an NHL playoff series, losing the first game of the series at home did downgrade the Hurricanes chances in my mind.
But in terms of the Hurricanes level of play and the game in general, the game was more positive than negative. Yes, the Hurricanes played the Tampa Bay Lightning even in the regular season series, but the playoffs are a different animal. Considered as a first measurement of how the Hurricanes stack up against the Lightning in the playoffs, who by the way added all-star Nikita Kucherov since the regular season ended, I was impressed by the Hurricanes’ play. My fight card had the Hurricanes winning the first and third periods by modest 10-9 margins and earning a tie in the second period. In a game in which even a single costly error had the potential to decide the game, that is what happened when Alex Nedeljkovic seemed to get twisted up like a pretzel and let an odd angle shot sneak through him to decide the game. But on a broader level, the Hurricanes played the Lightning even. If the Canes can repeat that in the games that follow, the series is destined to be a long one.
Player and other notes
1) Defensive play
Most impressive on the Hurricanes front was how well the team defended and managed the puck. Against a team that rates high for both speed and skill, the Hurricanes gave up very little. Very early in the game a Lightning player got mostly behind the defense making for a scary moment. But even on that play, Brady Skjei recovered late to challenge. That limited the chance and allowed Nedeljkovic to take away the bottom part of the net which resulted in a save. Otherwise, the Lightning mostly settled for a high volume of glove side high shots from distance with minimal traffic which resulted in Nedeljkovic easily snaring a high percentage of the shots he faced.
2) A couple mistakes
In terms of making mistakes, the Hurricanes also scored well overall. Unfortunately in a tight game one or two mistakes had the potential to decide the game and did. Not sure what Nedeljkovic’s thought process was on the game-winner, but he failed with the basics of just getting his shoulder to the post to take away any chance to shoot for an actual opening from a bad angle. In an even game with no margin for error, that one error ended up being the difference. A smaller error also contributed the first Tampa Bay goal. The Hurricanes were nearly halfway through that penalty kill and been successful by simply not letting the Lightning gain the blue line with possession. But with the puck on his stick in the offensive zone Warren Foegele tried to go to the middle of the ice and had his pass stolen. The result was nearly a rush the other way. The Hurricanes forwards recovered quickly to minimize any sizable advantage on the rush, but when the Canes defensemen had to back up, the Lightning did gain the blue line easily and then scored shortly thereafter.
3) Brett Pesce
On a night when the Hurricanes were good or better defensively pretty much across the lineup, Brett Pesce was a stand out. He led the team with 24:37 of ice time and also six blocked shots and was not on the ice for a goal against. I have questioned whether he might be battling a mobility-related injury. In watching him fairly closely, I still think that might be the case but even if accurate, it did not affect his level of play on Sunday.
4) Jake Bean
The strength of his game is on the offensive side of the puck and he has become a regular on the power play with Jake Gardiner out of the mix, so the peak version of the Hurricanes needs to include some amount of offensive production from Jake Bean. On Sunday he provided just that with a critical power play goal to pull the Hurricanes even at 1-1. Credit to him for stepping up in a big game.
5) Andrei Vasilevskiy
To no one’s surprise, Andrei Vasilevskiy made a strong case for being the best player on the ice. Was he also a little lucky? He had at least one first period save that seemed to just glance off the knob of his stick and maybe a second (not sure if someone who watched from home can verify that there were two). Obviously, anything counts in terms of keeping the puck out of the net and Vasilevskiy deserves credit for playing well but if one or both (if there were in fact two) of those shots is an inch either way, the Canes maybe exit the first period with a lead they deserved which changes the trajectory of the game. Regardless, after a first round in which he looked human, Vasilevskiy was back to super-human on Sunday. Best for the Hurricanes is to not get discouraged but at the same time place an emphasis on getting pucks and bodies to the net at the same time with the hope of netting an ugly goal or two and/or getting a rebound chance or two from point blank.
6) Vincent Trocheck
He did not really collect much for his efforts, but I really like Vincent Trocheck’s game on Sunday – actually thought it was his best game of the playoffs despite not getting on the score sheet. He played with an edge and a consistent determination to compete for ice space between the face-off circles and at the top of the crease. As noted above, I think that is exactly what the doctor ordered to cracking Vasilevskiy. In addition, he collected a team high seven shots on goal including one of the Vasilevskiy knob saves.
7) Alex Nedeljkovic
I really liked his game except for the two goals against. The second one is noted above. For the Brayden Point tip goal on the power play, by no means was it a bad goal, but ideally in that situation a goalie puts himself where the shot is coming from, leaves no holes and forces a goal to beat him into a corner. If that happens, you shrug because there is really not much that can be done. But in this case, the shot did find a way through Nedeljkovic who was moving slightly reacting to the first shot. But back to the starting point, Nedeljkovic was sharp otherwise. He read the near breakaway correctly early on and courageously took away the bottom part of the net against a Lightning player barreling in. And he tracked and routinely handled a number of shots with his glove without giving up rebounds.
8) Looking forward to game 2
Heading into a critical game two on Tuesday, I would keep 80 percent of what the Canes put forward on Sunday. Cut out the actually small number of costly mistakes. Put an even bigger emphasis on getting pucks and players to the front of the net at the same time. Keep the compete level, puck management and defensive play and most everything else.
Next up is a day off on Monday and then an all-important game 2 on Tuesday at PNC Arena.