Given the volume and being worn out just from watching it, I will skip trying to recap the entire game and instead offer a random set of notes coming out of the Carolina Hurricanes 5-4 loss in two overtimes in game three.
Easier path lost?
I wrote in my preview that this game could be a fork in the road in terms of taking an easier path and coasting a bit to a series win versus having the more normal battle that a playoff series usually is. The Hurricanes are still in the driver’s seat, and had you told me before the series started that the Hurricanes would be up 2-1, I would have taken it. That said, the Predators can guarantee a long series just by repeating with a win in game four. The Hurricanes do still have a chance to take a pretty expeditious path to the second round if they can rebound with a road win on Sunday to set up a chance to win in five at home on Tuesday.
Level of play
I thought both teams were better on Friday after what I thought was a sluggish game on Wednesday. Over the course of nearly 100 minutes of hockey, there are going to be mistakes and areas that could have been better, but Friday’s game was not a dud. The Hurricanes were competitive and played a decent game. Both teams had enough near misses that it could have shifted the regulation outcome. So entering Sunday’s game, there is not some big checklist of fixes. It is just about sticking with it.
Aho had a strong game with three points and a decent number of other near misses. I am on record as saying that Aho will need to be in the Conn Smyth conversation for the Hurricanes to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. He played at that level and produced on Friday.
In total, Alex Nedeljkovic had a good or better game. The goals against and save percentage are not as scintillating as his shutout on Wednesday, but the game was more open and scoring chances were more plentiful. My one concern is his intermittent trouble leaving rebounds laying literally in the crease and having trouble finding them. He had issues in that regard in game one but survived them. That seemed to go away in the shutout with his rebound control finding a higher gear in the second half of that game. But on Friday, he had at least four more times where the puck was loose in the crease. One of those found the net behind him with a few more being close calls. But that said, I would not switch from him. His level of play has been fine. But with nearly five periods of hockey on Friday and a short turnaround to an afternoon game on Sunday, my bet is the Brind’Amour gives Petr Mrazek a start. That is not going away from Nedeljkovic. Where it could get interesting is if Mrazek plays well and wins. That pushes Brind’Amour to make a decision for game five next Tuesday.
Lack of trusted depth on defense
When the Hurricanes made the sideways trade exchanging Haydn Fleury for Jani Hakanpaa, I was on record as being a bit surprised that the Hurricanes did not add depth on defense. The Fleury/Hakanpaa trade made sense in terms of the exchange of skill set and style of play, but what I think would have made more sense would have been giving up higher draft pick(s) to get Hakanpaa, keeping Fleury for playoff depth and then probably recouping draft picks in the off-season in trading Fleury. Another way to accomplish the same thing could have been making a separate trade to add blue line depth. Instead, the Hurricanes entered the post-season with Hakanpaa, Bean and Gardiner fill the final two slots, be the the one extra and importantly backfill the top 4 in the event of an injury.
And with Jaccob Slavin out of the lineup, here we are.
In the first game with Slavin out, Brind’Amour rode Brett Pesce for 28 minutes each in a regulation hockey game and went to great lengths to try to hide the bottom of the blue line limiting ice time and match ups. Gardiner drew into the lineup from the #7 slot and played only 9 minutes.
Friday’s game was more of the same. Be it Bean or Hakanpaa, the #4 defenseman played at only a 17-minute pace for 60 minutes of play. Brind’Amour opted to go with an AHL callup Maxime Lajoie over Gardiner for the #6 slot. Lajoie did take a penalty in overtime but in general was serviceable with limited ice time. But therein lies the issue. Pesce, Skjei and Hamilton played at about a 24 minutes per 60 minutes of game time pace. That is high but not outlandish, but their totals were high at 38ish minutes each because of overtime. Jake Bean being right in the middle of the deciding goal will not help in terms of Brind’Amour increasing his trust in Bean, and the team seems destined to lean heavily on three defensemen. Seemingly gone is the blue line depth that is theoretically the team’s foundation with a single injury. No doubt losing Slaving would be challenging no matter what, but it does also highlight issues trying balance minutes without anyone in the top 4.
The questions are twofold. Are the Hurricanes good enough defensively on the blueline at least four deep to beat a good team in a long series? Could we see ill effects in later rounds from having to lean so heavily on Pesce, Skjei and Hamilton?
Vincent Trocheck scored a nifty power play goal sniping a shot into what looked like an opening big enough for exactly one and a half pucks. But at even strength Trocheck’s line is still trying to find a higher gear. Nino Niederreiter scored a huge game-winning goal in game one, but that is all Niederreiter/Trocheck/Necas have at even strength. The Hurricanes have fared well offensively for the most part, so Trocheck’s line finding a higher gear would help the team reach a higher level.
Right where they want to be
No doubt a 3-0 series lead would make the Canes a near lock to advance to the second round, but at 2-1 still with a chance to get one of two on the road with a chance to close out the series in the next game at home is a perfectly good position to be in. Even a loss on Sunday would not be catastrophic just making it a best of three series with the Hurricanes have two of the three games at home.