Short recap of the Hurricanes 3-0 loss to the Lightning
Whereas the first game of the ongoing four-game series saw the Hurricanes control play and win decisively in a shutout, Wednesday was exactly the opposite.
Tampa Bay had the upper hand pretty much from the opening puck drop. Similar to the game on Monday, Tampa Bay was aggressive and regularly hemmed the Hurricanes in their own end. Couple that with a couple coverage break downs right in front of the net, and the Lightning were justly rewarded with a 2-0 lead in the first period.
At the midway point of the game, one could have made a reasonable argument that the Hurricanes did not yet have a single good or better scoring chance. The nine shots on goal were mostly pedestrian fare for Andrei Vasilevskiy. Then the game seemed to go from bad to worse when the Hurricanes somehow converted a power play opportunity into two grade A shorthanded chances against with a breakaway and a 2-on-1.
The Hurricanes did manage to find a slightly higher gear late in the second period that extended into the third period when the game opened up a bit. But even the Hurricanes best on Wednesday night at best matched the Lightning intermittently. And when finally tested a few times late in the game Vasilevskiy had the answer. An empty-netter finished the win for the Lightning at 3-0.
Questions and a bit of regular season drama
A quick turnaround for game four of the series offers a decent amount of regular season drama and also poses some interesting questions. Can the Hurricanes also push back as the Lightning did after losing 4-0 in the first game? Or did that just spur the Lightning to find the higher gear needed to demonstrate that they are in fact the superior team? Can Brind’Amour and his staff make adjustments like the Lightning did after the first loss? Tampa Bay dialed up their forecheck pressure when they had the opportunity but more significantly seemed to adjust how they defended the Hurricanes trying to exit their zone. The Hurricanes had no answer on Wednesday and seemed stymied in terms of advancing the puck with any cohesiveness. The run of four games works somewhat like the playoffs and gives Brind’Amour and his staff a challenge to see if they can adjust quickly with a rematch tomorrow. Then there is also just the basic question of how the Hurricanes respond to adversity. Wednesday marks the first time that the Hurricanes have lost consecutive games, so it will be interesting to see if/how they bounce back.
Player and other notes
1) Alex Nedeljkovic
One Canes positive was Alex Nedljkovic’s play. He followed up his shutout in the first game of the set with a strong outing despite the loss. Both goals against were from point blank in front of the net and more the result of coverage breakdowns than his play. He made a number of good saves throughout the game, and giving up only two on a night where the opponent was better was a positive. Further, he played incredibly well in the third period with the Hurricanes down 2-0. In doing so, he did everything he could to give his team a chance to steal a point or two late.
2) Jake Bean
His assessment was the opposite. After a run of mostly solid games defensively and even better offensively, Bean had a tough night. He let Yanni Gourde walk right off the far wall and past him with no body contact or obstruction of any kind. Bean was also beaten at the defensive blue line resulting in a Lightning player walking in alone. Couple the bigger errors with a couple smaller ones, and Bean had a rough night. But in total, he has been a positive, so I hope Brind’Amour keeps him in the lineup partly just to show that he has some margin for error as he grows.
3) Best against best
As noted in my preview, the Hurricanes lost the best against best battle in Monday’s loss and lost that battle again by a wide margin on Wednesday. Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov both looked frustrated at time and were unnoticeable until very late in the game when they did muster a few chances but no goals. I thought Victor Hedman was the best player on the ice. He went full Joni Pitkanen carrying the puck around at will. The Lightning seemed to make a concerted to make space at the top of the offensive zone and also set a few (maybe legal?) picks for Hedman and Sergachev to carry the puck in the offensive zone. Hedman generated chances offensively and also played a major role in shutting down the Canes best players.
4) Xs and Os — The forecheck and pressure on the first pass
Obviously noticeable in Tampa Bay’s win in the second game and also on display again Wednesday was how the Lightning dialed up the pressure on the forecheck. Unable to generate much offensively in the two prior losses to the Canes, the Lightning tried to instead generate offense with pressure and transition points on turnovers or keep ins. The tactic worked in two ways. First, it tilted the ice into the Canes defensive zone such that Tampa Bay did not need to defend nearly as much. Second it generated some scoring chances. Less noticeable but I think equally significant is how the Lightning have been very aggressive stepping up to challenge/defend the Canes first passes out of their own end. Instead of sitting back on the other side of red line in position and waiting, the Lightning started regularly jumping the first pass such that the Hurricanes struggled most of the game to get going north-south. The Hurricanes (maybe too much) rely on using a first pass combined with speed to back up the opponents’ defense and make it possible to navigate the neutral zone with speed. Without puck support for that first pass, quite often the Hurricanes were bottled up and unable to get going up the ice. Cooper made some quick adjustments with some success. The ball is now in Brind’Amour’s court to see if he can similar make an adjustment or two to counteract the Lightning.
5) Bigger picture
Thursday’s game is significant in terms of seeing how the team responds to adversity, how well/quickly Brind’Amour can make some adjustments to boost his team’s chances and also just measuring how the Canes stack up against the Lightning who will stand in the way of winning the Central Division when it really matters in the playoffs. But even if the Hurricanes lose ugly on Thursday to run the losing streak to three games, the team will still be in a good position overall when it wakes up on Friday. Even the 56-game version is bound to have some ups and downs and perhaps Tampa Bay showing they are still better would yield motivation for the Hurricanes to keep working to improve instead of being content.
Next up is a quick turnaround with the fourth and final game of the set on Thursday in Tampa.