After a disappointing effort that looked much better than the stinker it was on Monday night, the Hurricanes entered the last match up of the regular season with the Lightning seeking a bounce back in terms of effort and level of play. The Hurricanes got that and much more in an entertaining affair that had every bit of angst generally seen late in a testy playoff series.
And as I said on Twitter in the middle of it:
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) April 21, 2021
Here is hoping that we are so lucky in the postseason.
The Canes started better and had the upper hand early but were not rewarded with a goal in the first period, but things just became better from there. The Hurricanes doubled down on a strong first period and collected a couple goals while also answering the challenge in terms of physical play in a game that seemed to have a full playoff series worth of big hits, surly attitudes after the whistle and a just generally hostile and hateful environment.
The Hurricanes won a wild second period 3-1 and then rode that to a 4-1 final on the back of a generally good third period, a couple tremendous saves by Alex Nedeljkovic and an empty-netter by Jordan Martinook.
The win puts a bow on the season series that has a significantly different trajectory than after Monday’s loss and potentially sets the stage for what could be an epic playoff series in either the first or second round.
Player and other notes
1) The answer
The biggest thing on Tuesday was having an answer after a lackluster effort on Monday. The Hurricanes easily met that challenge with one of the most spirited efforts of the year. In the modern NHL game, there is less need to answer every challenge to drop the gloves like in past generations of the game, but there is still a need to stand up and push back physically at times. The Hurricanes did well there too.
2) Jordan Staal
In a rugged game, Jordan Staal looked to be in his element. His tip goal after a pushing, whacking and hacking battle with Yanni Gourde was the epitome of the game in total. Staal won a one on one physical battle and netted a goal in the process. He also had five hits, was a regular participant in the battles for position in front of the net and was also present in many of the scrums after the whistle. Tuesday’s game is a testament to why Staal is especially important come playoff time when there is a bit less skating and creating a bunch more of players just battling for inches that sometimes lead to goals. Tampa Bay Coach John Cooper has seemed to prefer the Gourde/Staal checking line match up at home. It will be interesting to see if today’s game shifts his thinking on that if the teams meet in the playoffs.
3) Alex Nedeljkovic
He was solid again in what is starting to become a ho-hum story. As a rookie, I think the subtle but maybe most impressive part of Nedeljkovic’s run has been his consistency. After a couple ‘meh’ games and a couple ‘iffy’ goals against in his first few starts (notably after a massive layoff of 10 months with no pre-season tune up games), Nedeljkovic has been a model of consistency. Even rookies that find a hot streak and/or play well tend to be prone to an occasional off night, but Nedeljkovic has been immune to any kind of fall off.
4) Jordan Martinook
As noted above, today’s NHL does not have a need for a bunch of gloves on the ice, but there is still a need to push back physically at times. The headline in that regard was Martinook’s fight, but I think just as significant is the way he seems to have a feel for when he needs to dial things up early in a game and yap a bit on the bench to make sure everyone else finds the higher level on the intensity dial. The empty-netter was just reward for a leader who helped lead the way.
5) Brett Pesce
Brett Pesce had a bad turnover in his own end early, but played a nearly flawless game after that. Leading the blue line in ice time, he had at least three plays in his own end where he interrupted shots or passes that could have been higher-end scoring chances against.
6) Finding space amidst the danger
One thing to watch in games like this how well the Canes skill players are able to find space and pick spots in a game where having the puck on one’s stick makes you a target. After getting leveled yesterday, Martin Necas had two passes in the neutral zone trickle off his stick as he maybe heard foot steps or pulled up a little fearing the worst. By no means was Sebastian Aho bad on Tuesday, but his game as also a little quiet amidst the noise. The peak version of the playoff Canes sees these players find their spots even in a crowded and physical game that looks more like rugby than shinny.
7) Holding the top spot
The win also pushed the Hurricanes three points ahead of Tampa Bay with a game in hand and only 11 games remaining. With Florida also winning on Tuesday, the Canes and Panthers are tied atop the Central Division standings with the Panthers holding the tiebreaker but the Canes having two games in hand.
And as luck would have it, the Canes are in South Florida for the next two games on Thursday and Saturday. The final standings will not likely be decided until the last week of the season, but the final games in Florida during the regular season represent an opportunity for the Hurricanes to protect their current position in the driver’s seat.