Facing the first of consecutive challenges against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, the Hurricanes looked to extend their winning streak to three games and continue increasing the gap above the playoff cut line.
The Hurricanes started on time and had the better of play possession-wise early by virtue of its strong forecheck. But the Capitals defended well even when hemmed in a bit, and the Hurricanes were unable to convert the early advantage to much in the way of grade A scoring chances. As the first period wore on, the Capitals picked up the pace and played their way into the game. Along the way, Evgeni Kuznetsov dialed up his level of play and began creating scoring chances on seemingly every shift he was on the ice. After a few other good plays, Kuznetsov helped put the Capitals on the scoreboard first when he threaded a pass through Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk to find T.J. Oshie on the other side of the net for a quick tally and 1-0 lead. The first period that saw each team have the upper hand for stretches would finish with that score.
Early on, the second period reminded me of the lackluster second period against the Canadiens on Sunday night. The Hurricanes were unable to connect the dots enough with their passes and therefore could not generate much offensively. But the Hurricanes defense was generally steady, and goalie Petr Mrazek kept the deficit at only one goal. With less than five minutes remaining in the second period, the Hurricanes would draw even with an extra attacker on the ice for a delayed penalty. After regrouping after the official’s arm went up, the Hurricanes would eventually score on a Dougie Hamilton shot through a Jaccob Slavin screen. That 1-1 score would stand until the end of the second period.
From this point forward, the game reminded me of the loss to Tampa Bay last week. Against a high caliber team, the Hurricanes entered the third period in position to pick up a point or even two in the standings. But in both cases, the Hurricanes were outclassed in the third period by a better opponent who opportunistically scored and pulled away. Just 4:31 into the third period, Justin Faulk would be a half second slow stepping into a passing lane to Alexander Ovechkin. The result was Ovechkin using Faulk as a screen and beating Petr Mrazek. Next a pretty passing play to the back door found Sebastian Aho daydreaming a bit on defense and Petr Mrazek with no chance on the bang-bang pass and goal. The Capitals would add an empty-netter to finalize the win at 4-1.
The loss was a costly one in the sense that both the Canadiens and Blue Jackets won, but in the bigger picture the Hurricanes are still in great position with six games remaining.
Player and other notes
1) Dougie Hamilton
Though it was all for naught, Dougie Hamilton’s goal was a huge one and exactly the kind that the team needed. After a slot start in a Hurricanes uniform, Hamilton now has 15 goals.
2) Best against best
The simple cause for the result was that the Capitals best players were better than the Hurricanes best players. As noted above, Evgeni Kuznetsov was the best player on the ice all night. In addition, Oshie, Ovechkin and Carlson scored to provide the Capitals offense. On the Hurricanes side, Sebastian Aho had another quiet game. Best guess is that he is laboring with some kind of physical ailment. Regardless, the Capitals best players outdid the Hurricanes group.
The margin for error is tiny when playing against elite scoring forwards like the Capitals have. Two of the Capitals goals featured Brett Pesce and/or Justin Faulk being off just a tiny bit to leave an opening. That opening is enough for the likes of Ovechkin and company to capitalize and capitalize they did on Tuesday.
4) Balanced ice time
In some recent games, Brin’Amour has ridden his top players heavily and somewhat limited the fourth line. Tuesday’s game was the opposite. The fourth-liners were up above 10 minutes of ice time and no forward logged more than 18 minutes. Best bet is that Brind’Amour went this direction at least partially because neither of the top two lines was flourishing anyway.
Next up for the Hurricanes is an immediate rematch against the Capitals on Thursday at PNC Arena.