Neither of the Hurricanes first two games have been near the team’s peak. There is a higher gear to be had, but saying that the team can be better after winning two games by a combined 8-2 margin is impressive in its own right.
Wednesday’s game was a grinding, disjointed affair. With a a slew of penalties to minimize 5-on-5 play and an extra 60-delay to exchange unpleasantries after most whistles, the game just plodded along at a snail’s pace. But the Hurricanes fared well despite not really finding the pace and jump that can make them electric.
The first period started with the Hurricanes having the upper hand by a modest margin but not generating a ton of higher-end scoring chances from it. Nedeljkovic was capable but not really tested early with Nashville taking two early penalties. The Hurricanes struck first when Sebastian Aho buried a shot off of a heady Andrei Svechnikov pass through the seam. After that, the Hurricanes entered and never really left the penalty fray taking four penalties in the final 12 minutes of the first period. The Hurricanes penalty kill was outstanding from the outset and right through to the end of the game. With Jaccob Slavin out of the lineup, Rod Brind’Amour leaned heavily on Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei who logged 9:18 and 9:37 of shorthanded ice time respectively and a massive 28:02 and 27:43 of total ice time in a regulation game. Courtesy of the penalty kill, the first period ended with the Hurricanes still leading 1-0.
The second period was another disjointed slog. Two matching minors and staggered penalties netted 5:04 of 4-on-4 play. There was another 5:03 of power play ice time split between the teams. Add in a bunch of after the whistle scrums, and the period was just completely disjointed. But the huge positive in the second period was the play of Alex Nedeljkovic after a first game that saw him battle and get results but also maybe be a bit lucky that rebound control did not cost him, he seemed to settle down as Wednesday’s game progressed. He obviously stopped everything he faced, but equally significantly he started to eliminate and/or control rebounds. That combined with a Hurricanes defense that did a pretty good job of making the Predators work incredibly hard just to keep/win possession on the end walls led to a fairly high 15 shots on goal by the Predators in the second period but no damage done on the scoreboard.
Just like on Monday, the Hurricanes finally broke out a bit in the third period. Nedeljkovic made a couple of his best saves of the game early in the third period with the Hurricanes clinging to a one-goal lead. The Hurricanes did a decent job at least playing pucks forward and out of the defensive zone and seemed destined for a 1-0 win until Sebastian Aho chased down a puck for an empty-net goal and Warren Foegele scored on a centering pass off a defenseman’s skate, both within the final minute.
The win was another fun one with (no longer) rookie goalie Alex Nedeljkovic notching his first playoff shutout and winning the first star.
Player and other notes
1) Alex Nedeljkovic
I was a tough grader of Nedeljkovic’s play in the first game despite the positive results. I just thought he was shaky in terms of controlling rebounds such that another bounce here or there could easily have led to a couple more goals against. On Wednesday, he again did well warding off first shots but more significantly was much better at either not giving up or controlling rebounds. As has been the case at an incredibly high rate over the past three years, Brind’Amour is on point in terms of deciding who to start in net.
2) Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce
Though they were separated at even strength to rebalance the blue line with Jaccob Slavin out, Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce were both phenomenal in workhorse roles. Pesce had four shifts that were longer than 1:50 and another four that were more than 1:20 on the way to logging 28:02 of ice time. He also blocked five shots. Brady Skjei was every bit his equal with nearly identical tallies for ice time, penalty kill time and long shifts.
3) Sebastian Aho breaks through
After collecting a ton of chances but not getting on the scoreboard in game one, Sebastian Aho netted the all-important first goal that would hold up to be the game-winner. His burst of speed to get a loose puck to score the empty-netter also sealed the victory. As I have said a couple times, I do not think there is a version of the Hurricanes that competes for the Stanley Cup that does not have Sebastian Aho in the conversation for the Conn-Smythe Trophy. He took a step in that direction today.
4) Team defense in the defensive zone
One thing that stood out throughout the game was how well the Hurricanes pushed the Predators to the walls in the Canes defensive zone. It seemed to take a Herculean effort for the Predators to do more than just keep the puck but not with enough time and space to do much or make more than a first pass to relieve pressure. The result was a good amount of offensive zone time for the Predators but a limited number of grade A chances.
5) Jake Gardiner
He was lowest of the defenseman with only 9:07 of ice time which was not surprising since he was the addition to fill Slavin’s spot. He did not do anything dramatic, but he played a quiet game in a good way and also chipped in five hits in a physical game and had three blocked shots. There is always going to be some amount of ‘next man up’ in a long playoff run; Jake Gardiner did a good job being first in that role.
6) Too many penalties
Whereas I thought the Hurricanes did a great job answering the physical challenge in the first game without getting sidetracked, that was not the case on Wednesday. Yes there was an element of officiating with the referees letting the Predators get away with some small/medium stuff only to then catch a Canes player with a penalty for only slightly more. But there was also element of the Hurricanes too often putting themselves in position where a penalty could be called. By virtue of tremendous penalty killing and maybe partly due to the Predators just not having a ton of offensive fire power, the Hurricanes survived. But one dares to look forward to a second round match up against the Lightning or Panthers, trying to ride a high volume of perfect penalty killing to a win is treacherous path.
Next up, the series moves to the Music City with the Hurricanes looking to start pounding nails into the Predators’ coffin.