Viewed through the lens of having lost both home games to start the series, I think there is a gap between the perception of the Canes level of play and its actual level.
Glass not as empty as results make it appear
Results matter, so losing two games is horrible obviously. I did not like the volume of break downs for odd man rushes on Tuesday. And the offense is sputtering a bit. But that is the complete of negatives right now. On Sunday, the Hurricanes played their best defensive game of the playoffs. And aside from the break downs, the Hurricanes actually controlled play and gave up a miniscule 15 shots on net to a high-powered offense.
Consider that despite a decent shot volume and reasonable effort to get bodies to the front of the net, the Hurricanes have yet to find a lucky bounce off a defenseman, a tip either intentional or luck, a rebound that just happened to find a Canes stick or any kind of break. Throw in even a single lucky but to some degree earned goal early in either game, and the complexion of that game and the whole series potentially changes.
Do the Hurricanes deserve an A for two consecutive losses? Of course not. But are they playing C or D level hockey overall right now. Not even close. They deserve a B+ which can be good enough to win some hockey games if you catch a break or two. The Hurricanes have not.
Brief game recap
The Hurricanes started fast and were the better team out of the game. But as has been the case through pretty much the entirety of two games, the Hurricanes struggled to convert control of the game into more than mediocre scoring chances. And right now those are being handled easily by Andrei Vasilevskiy. Shortly after the midway point of the first period, I felt like the Hurricanes were dictating play, because they were, but the shot count was even at five each.
That is one of the constant story lines so far. Even when the Hurricanes do have an advantage, not much is coming from it in terms of scoring chances.
The latter half of the first period saw the Hurricanes start to get themselves in trouble defensively. Unlike game one, puck management and defensemen making ill-timed decisions to press up led to intermittent odd man rushes. But the first goal against actually came on a fairly harmless looking attempt when Alex Killor spun up near the blue line and turned to slide a shot toward the net. Alex Nedelkovic did not seem to track it through a screen and the result was one of those ‘it’s never a bad idea to shoot the puck’ goals. The Hurricanes pushed after that, but it was mostly more of the same without much for real scoring chances.
Tampa Bay would strike again nearing the midway point of the third to build a two-goal lead that felt massive given how the game was going. Victor Hedman made a pretty stretch pass to net a one-on-one opportunity. When Brady Skjei fished twice for the puck with no luck instead of physically separating Anthony Cirelli from the puck, an opportunity was created. Cirelli made no mistake beating Nedeljkovic with a backhand. To the Hurricanes’ credit, the team did not quit. The slog through the mud continued until Jordan Staal fed Andrei Svechikov in front for a quick finish. The goal pulled the Hurricanes to within a single goal with 90 seconds remaining. The Hurricanes would spend most of the final minute in the offensive zone and net a near miss with Sebastian Aho getting a decent whack at a pass coming across. But it was not to be, and the Hurricanes fell 2-1 to the Lightning.
Player and other notes
1) Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce
Both had strong games again leading the way defensively. Lost in the fact that the Hurricanes have lost two games is that overall the team has been pretty good defensively giving up only four goals in two games including an odd angle soft one and a harmless shot from out through a screen. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce continue to lead the way in this regard. The two losses have not at all been a story of Tampa Bay’s offensive stars having their way. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have only a single assist each in terms of scoring points. Slavin was especially good helping cleaning up a few messes that could have been worse including a few ‘iffy’ decisions by Dougie Hamilton.
In a similar vein, the Hurricanes held a pretty good Lightning offense to a meager 15 shots in the game. Clean up the few too many defensive break downs, and this game was much more so good than bad defensively.
3) Martin Necas
I would love to hear others’ opinions on Necas’ game on Tuesday. In a game where so many players just got lost in the inability to generate much for scoring chances, Necas stood out. He was a puck management lottery ticket with plenty of winners but also plenty of losers. One could see him trying incredibly to come up with an individual effort like the Nashville wraparound goal to get the Hurricanes on the scoreboard. Points scored for trying to dial it up. But along the way, he had some of the bad variety of turnovers that plagued the Canes on Tuesday. He led the Canes forwards with 21:21 of ice time which I think was a testament that Rod Brind’Amour was willing to live with some risk/reward trade off hoping to find some kind of ignition switch offensively.
4) Andrei Vasilevskiy
Vasilevskiy continues to be the story of the series. After looking very human at times against the Florida Panthers, he was been nearly perfect against the Hurricanes. He reads plays as well as any goalie I can remember watching. So many times he is a step ahead of a pass that could seemingly generate a decent scoring chance. Instead, those chances tend to find Vasilevskiy square to the shooter and giving up virtually nothing for net to shoot at. The key for the Hurricanes is making his life difficult by getting pucks and people to the net at the same time. I give the Hurricanes a decent B in that regard in Tuesday’s game, but there is room for improvement.
5) Considering the Panthers
An interesting question for Brind’Amour and his staff is if and how much to try to open things up in game three. With Vasilevskiy dialed in, the Lightning seem content to play a tight-checking, low-scoring game. Florida was able to score four or goals in three out of six games in the first round. The recipe for doing that is opening things up a bit and pushing pace in straight lines. The potential downside is miscues that could give Tampa Bay dangerous transition opportunities, but if the Hurricanes cannot find offense elsewhere, at some point Brind’Amour has to try something different.
Next up, the series moves the Tampa for game three on Thursday.
Keep the faith y’all! No guarantee on results being down 2-0 to a good hockey team, but this team will not quit. Fans should not either.