As far as pushing closer to the end of the regular season still in first place in the Central Division, the Carolina Hurricanes had a decent night picking up an overtime loss point in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The result gives up a point obviously, but still leaves the Hurricanes tied with Florida with two games in hand and up a point on Tampa Bay with a game in hand.
But the bigger story was the wide margin by which the Hurricanes were outplayed and maybe secondarily John Cooper possibly finding an Achilles’ heel or two with the post-season approaching.
The overtime result might suggest a hard-fought, evenly played game. The hard-fought was definitely true in a very physical game for two teams known for killing with speed more so than physicality. But evenly played was far from true. Petr Mrazek fended off far too many ‘in alone’ chances after Canes break downs while the Hurricanes offense was much more limited.
Player and game notes
1) Petr Mrazek
Starting with a positive on a night when positives were hard to come by, Petr Mrazek was easily the Hurricanes best player. He was hung out to dry too many times and had answers for the vast majority of messes left for him to clean up. This game was at least as lopsided as the the first rough one against Tampa Bay awhile back and could easily have finished 6-2.
2) Vincent Trocheck
The Canes had a tough night in total defensively, but for as good as Vincent Trocheck has been all season, he had a really rough night in Monday’s loss. He went to the same player that Dougie Hamilton was already covering on the first goal putting two Canes on the wall and absolutely no one with a streaking Alex Killorn. He was victimized by what I think was John Cooper’s adjustments (see below) two more times. One led to another breakaway and the other he prevented only by taking a penalty. The game was quite possibly his worst for the 2020-21 campaign which has had very few lows for him.
3) Playoff intensity and peak physicality
For a team built on speed and skill, the revamped, Cup-winning Lightning manages to pack a lot of big and nasty into nooks and crannies of its lineup. On Monday, Luke Schenn spent the entire game running around looking for hits and then yapping about it after the whistle. But Alex Killorn landed the two biggest hits including an open ice smash that sent Martin Necas temporarily to the locker room. Add in Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Patrick Maroon and then Erik Cernak, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, David Savard and Ryan McDonough on defense and the Lightning are suddenly a team that has the size to make life difficult and dangerous. And that is exactly what they did on Monday. The Lightning blue line on Monday averaged 225 pounds. Good for Jake Gardiner stepping up to defend a teammate, but the Hurricanes were unable to match the Lightning with physical play inside the whistles.
4) Is John Cooper building a playbook?
Some amount of the Hurricanes struggles just poor decision-making and/or an off night, but I also think there was an element of Lightning bench boss John Cooper finding and exploiting the Hurricanes system. On multiple occasions with some ability to pick the most common center lane carrying the puck to the offensive blue line on the rush, the Lightning instead played the puck to the wall that the blue line knowing that the Hurricanes defensemen will challenge the puck even on the outside. That generally works well for the Hurricanes that does well forcing opponents to give up and try to retrieve the puck when entering the zone. But what I think Cooper was trying was to see if entering wide when the Lightning had numbers could put pressure on back-checking forwards to have to play and sort things out like a defenseman defending the rush. By having the second forward enter closer to the puck on the wall than the normal middle lane drive, the Lightning tried to create a short passing lane to a streaking forward. The Canes defensemen only step up when they have backchecking help in the middle, but that still forces Canes forwards to sort things out very quickly and identify players and/or passing lanes to defend off the rush which is a more common situation for a defenseman. The Canes struggled in this regard. As noted above, Vincent Trocheck was victimized most frequently but there were a few other near misses defensively where the Lightning exploited the open middle of the ice behind Canes defensemen lured to the wall with the puck.
For Tuesday’s game, more interesting than if/how well the Hurricanes make adjustments could be how aggressively the Lightning try to do the same. Earlier in the season series after a couple losses, Cooper made significant changes to his forechecking scheme to challenge first passes. The result was a very sloppy and ineffective effort by the Canes to advance the puck through the neutral zone in the other Lightning-leaning lopsided loss. The Canes have not struggled with the Lightning defense nearly as much since that game. I keep watching to try to determine if the Hurricanes have adjusted and/or the Lightning just had a great night, but part of me thinks that Cooper dialed that back a bit to put in a box to be saved for a potential playoff series. So similarly, I will be watching on Tuesday to see if the Lightning as regularly try to intentionally enter on the walls when they have numbers with the intent of opening up the path to between the circles.
5) Andrei Svechnikov
His power play goal was another small highlight. He looked like the confident sniper that he can be picking and hitting a corner for a goal. At his still young age, on the score sheet production matters maybe more than it would for a veteran who is fighting it a bit, because it helps build the confidence that will keep him on track and playing his game even if the results are modest.
Next up is a quick turnaround and a rematch on Tuesday. The game is intriguing with a number of things to watch. How do the Canes rebound in terms of level of play? How do they respond physically? What, if anything, happens with the unique element of being able to use the extended season series to make tactical adjustments and maybe even bank some things for the playoffs?