At one point, the story was that the Hurricanes caught the Penguins at home with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup and Kris Letang playing in his first game after a long layoff.
At one point, the story could also have been that the Hurricanes whose strength has been aggressive play suddenly became too cautious early and late in the game under the pressure of a big game.
At one point, the story was how the Hurricanes inability to get to the paint and capitalize on a night when the opposing goalie spit out an endless number of rebounds.
And at another point, the story was that the Hurricanes squandered more than two minutes of power play ice time in overtime on the way to giving up a point.
But this is not the Hurricanes of years past that too often seemed to let opportunities slip away. Instead, the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes are writing their own stories that more often than not end with “…and the Canes found a way to win.”
And on this night, the Hurricanes again wrote their own story. Petr Mrazek again dazzled late. The captain Justin Williams scored yet another huge third period goal. Brett Pesce had another huge game defensively. Dougie Hamilton stepped into the spotlight and scored the lone goal in the shootout.
…AND THE CANES FOUND A WAY TO WIN!
And with that win, the team moved two points closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
In yet another round of “the biggest game of the year”, the Hurricanes faced off against a Penguins team that is also maybe a bit in unfamiliar territory fighting to get into the playoffs. But despite the different situation, the Penguins entered with a wealth of big game experience from deep playoff runs and Stanley Cup championships.
I have mixed feelings about the Hurricanes start. On the positive side, the team did not dig a hole early with a sub-par start like it did in the past two games. On the negative side, I thought the Hurricanes were too cautious and got away from playing fast and aggressive which has been the team’s calling card for its best games. Most notably, the Hurricanes players were impatient with the puck on their sticks and too prone to take a quick look and then rush to a safe play of moving the puck up the ice to at least the safe version of a turnover. The result was that the Hurricanes spent the vast majority of the first ten minutes chipping pucks to the neutral zone and then changing players to defend yet again. From the front part of the first period, it is difficult to remember more than one or two instances where the Hurricanes were able to string together even two stick to stick passes such that they could at least dump the puck from inside the center line and set up the forecheck. But the positive was that the Hurricanes did at least avoid bad turnovers and avoided break downs in their own end. And the Hurricanes did gradually play their way into the game such that they were better as the period wore on. In the Pens end of the rink, from the outset Matt Murray seemed to be struggling to track the puck. He was able to fend off everything that came at him, but rebounds spit out at random with nearly every shot. In the Canes end, Petr Mrazek had a near miss that skittered through him but somehow not into the net but otherwise was solid in reasonably busy first period. On the scoreboard, the Hurricanes emerged from the first period with an acceptable even if lackluster 0-0 tie.
The second period started a bit more aggressively for the Canes, as they seemed to add some pace. And finally after nearly half of a game, the Hurricanes struck first when Justin Faulk made pretty pass through traffic to set Brock McGinn up for a point blank chance. McGinn made no mistake finishing into the corner of the net. The play was a textbook example of how to attack off the rush. Jordan Martinook and Greg McKegg entered three wide with Faulk and drove the net looking to receive a pass. When that was no there, they backed up the defense to make the passing lane behind them to McGinn. But the Hurricanes would give that goal back only 38 seconds later when Jake Guentzel would fire through traffic and beat Mrazek. From that point forward, the story continued to be the same in net. Mrazek continued to be solid, while Murray in my opinion continued to be a bit lucky that the Hurricanes were unable to find a rebound to bang in. The second period ended in a 1-1 tie and set the stage for a winner takes all third period.
The third period started okay with the Hurricanes having the upper hand, but about five minutes into the third period the Hurricanes seemed to revert back to the first period in a bad way. In being extremely careful not to make a bad turnover in their own end, the Hurricanes again became a bit impatient with the puck on their sticks and too prone to just chip the puck forward rather than risking a bad turnover. Avoiding bad turnovers is a good thing, but just like the first period, the result was too many times giving the puck back to Pittsburgh and having to defend again. The Pens tallied 14 of the next 18 shots on goal and finally broke through on a jail break 3-on-1 rush that saw Faulk as the lone defender back and unable to interrupt the puck. Kris Letang finished to post the Penguins to a 2-1 lead with only 4:37 remaining. With an extra skater on the ice and their ears pinned back trying to net a tying goal, the Hurricanes mounted another attack and not surprisingly scored when Murray left yet another rebound laying in front of him. After numerous previous chances without a Canes player in position, Justin Williams finally cashed in with another huge third period goal to tie the game. The Hurricanes would then get a power play with 1:46 remaining in regulation but were unable to capitalize for a regulation win.
The overtime started with the Hurricanes briefly on the power play and also winning the face-off. The Hurricanes had the puck for most of the first two minutes of overtime and mustered a couple decent looks at the net but with no success. Then after a short back and forth, the Hurricanes picked up another power play with just under two minutes remaining. The power play was a good one mostly featuring Sebastian Aho firing from the right side of the net. He had a couple decent shots with the best being a certain goal if not for a skate save by a Pens defenseman. Overtime would expire with the Hurricanes mounting a decent attack but failing to score on the power play.
But in the shootout which has also been a sore spot for Canes teams from years past, Dougie Hamilton would score first to stake the Canes to a lead and Petr Mrazek would go a perfect 3-for-3 to pull out a huge win for the Hurricanes.
For however many ways the Canes could have lost this back and forth affair, they instead found yet another way to win.
Player and other notes
1) Petr Mrazek
Following a familiar theme, Petr Mrazek was rightfully the first star of the game. In a run where he has played well regularly, Tuesday might have been the game in which he was the sharpest. His level of anticipation which is one of his greatest strengths saw him make multiple saves look really easy after having to move across the crease simply because he was a step ahead of the play. In addition, he was nearly flawless in terms of rebound control in the second half of the game. For shots he saw, he seemed to at will decide if he wanted to control for a face-off or direct the puck to the side of the net.
2) Mr. Clutch – Justin Williams
During the Canes 2019 surge, Williams has been Johnny on the spot in terms of scoring third period goals when the team desperately needed one. Sure enough, he netted the game-tying rebound goal late in the third to add yet another clutch goal to his tally.
3) Dougie Hamilton
With the shot that became Justin Williams’ rebound goal and netted an assist and the shootout game-winner, Dougie Hamilton did exactly what one would hope for from an offensive defenseman in a game when the team needed a boost offensively.
4) Shortening the bench
Arguably more than any other game since the Hurricanes started winning, Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour shortened the bench chasing a big win. Greg McKegg, Saku Maenalanen and Brock McGinn logged only 6:38, 6:23 and 8:53 respectively. Sebastian Aho played a career high 28:27. Nino Niederreiter came within nine seconds of his season high for ice time, and Justin Williams bettered his previous season high for ice time by a minute.
Results trump all else this time of year, and two points is obviously darn good for results. That said, if I nitpick a bit after seeing the Hurricanes in yet another big hockey game, I did not like two things about Tuesday’s game. First is that the Hurricanes played overly cautious early on and also for a stretch in the third period trying too hard to avoid ‘big oopses’ moving the puck and in the process also played away from their peak game which is pace and pressure. Second is that despite ultimately netting a win, the Hurricanes failed to capitalize on opportunities. Two minutes of power play ice time to close out both regulation and overtime went by the wayside.
6) The standings
In picking up a point on the Penguins, matching the Canadiens and picking up two points on the Blue Jackets who lost, the Hurricanes definitely took a step forward in terms of ending the long playoff drought.
In terms of the minimum of winning the second wild card slot, if the Hurricanes can simply go 5-5 down the stretch, that would force the Canadiens to go 7-2 to tie the Hurricanes. Similarly, the Blue Jackets would need to go 6-2-1 to tie the Hurricanes. Finally, with Tuesday’s win, the Hurricanes are now only two points behind the Penguins but with two games in hand.
Up next is a tough home match up on Thursday against the NHL’s best in the Tampa Bay Lightning.