The best part about watching Saturday’s regular season finale was the casual nature of wanting a win of course but not needing one. Canes fans will of course welcome the return of the nail-biting stress of playoff hockey, but not having to deal with it for the last game of the season was a hockey blessing.
Despite the lack of stress, Saturday’s game did still have playoff significance with the Hurricanes playing to avoid a match up with the hockey juggernaut out of Tampa and also with the potential to move up to third in the Metropolitan Division. In the end, the Hurricanes 4-3 win did save the team from facing the Lightning but did not boost them to third in the Metro.
The game saw the Hurricanes start fast partly courtesy of a struggling Flyers defense that carried over from their previous game. Early on, the Flyers demonstrated a regular tendency to give up grade A scoring chances from between the face-off circles, and the Hurricanes capitalized. First, a Brock McGinn centering pass from behind the net tried to find an open Lucas Wallmark in front of the net. The puck caromed off his skate and found a second Canes player in Warren Foegele who was also unguarded in a prime scoring area. Foegele finished to continue his scoring binge. Two minutes later a similar play netted the Canes second goal when a centering pass to Jordan Martinook instead bounced to Justin Faulk who fired an uncontested shot into the net off the rush. With the Flyers struggling early and the Hurricanes capitalizing, the game looked to be a route early. But the Flyers struck next when the Hurricanes returned the favor in terms of weak defensive play. After a harmless face-off loss Andrei Svechnikov moved and then fell. The result was an instant 2-on-1 from the side board toward the net. When Jaccob Slavin was unable to take away the passing lane, the result was a quick back door goal for the Flyers. But the Hurricanes would again benefit from shoddy Flyers defensive zone coverage when Jordan Staal fed a puck to the front of the net where Teuvo Teravainen found the handle and finished to push the Hurricanes into the first intermission with a 3-1 lead.
But the second period was another the lackluster middle stanza efforts that have plagued the team of late. A turnover and inability to recover and defend quickly enough led to a the Flyers scoring a second goal. And a power play tip pulled the Flyers even at 3-3 by the midway point of the second period. But Jordan Staal continued his recent run of scoring big goals when he scored to put the Hurricanes up 4-3 which is how the second period would end. In total, the second period was a sub-par effort that exhibited too much of the sloppiness that has plagued the Canes intermittently over the past couple weeks. The result was a loosely played second period.
The third period mostly featured the Hurricanes just kind of holding on and watching the clock tick down with Curtis McElhinney being the key component in preserving a 4-3 win. The Hurricanes were out-shot 10 to 1 in the third period and mostly just kind of rode it out.
In total, I think the game was about what one might expect. The Hurricanes capitalized on opportunities granted to them but never really strung together an extended run of great hockey with a high level of attention to detail. But as the team has done regularly of late, it found a way to score and a way to win.
Player and other notes
1) Jordan Staal
Since returning from injury, he has played his best offensive hockey in a Hurricanes uniform or at least since being paired with Jeff Skinner in 2012-13 (but that duo was horrid defensively). It is speculation, but I wonder if seeing the team win and score without him relieved pressure scoring-wise. More than a couple of the goals he has scored (the spin-o-rama backhander, the deft stick-handling breakaway, at least one one-timer in the slot) seem out of character from the Jordan Staal from the past few years. Regardless of cause, Staal is riding high at the right time of year.
2) Dougie Hamilton
The more I watch Dougie Hamilton play in what I call a “fourth forward” role, the more I think he is the cutting edge of NHL hockey. Teams will still need to have two defensemen who situationally sit behind the play simply because it is so much easier to defend the width of an NHL rink off the rush against skilled and speedy players with two back. But Hamilton definitely more than any other defenseman in Hurricanes history has the knack for figuring out how, where and when to join the play not only as a trailer in typical defenseman fashion but more so where it makes sense to step into the play. Today’s iteration had him handling the puck as a puck-distributing playmaker behind the net on Jordan Staal’s goal. What is striking about that play is that Hamilton did not just do the Pitkanen-like loop, nor did he reach the point where he was looking to get rid of the puck and return to his defensive post as is common for defensemen in that position. Instead, he did the stop/start, he used the back of the net to reverse and he figured out how to make a passing lane to the front of the net. Since Aho faded a bit down the stretch, I think Hamilton has a strong case for being the team’s best offensive player down the stretch which is saying a lot for a defenseman.
3) Warren Foegele
His season has become a strange book end. After a strong preseason, he started with three quick goals in a handful of games. Then he more or less disappeared offensively for most of the rest of the season. But in the past few games he has suddenly netted three more goals including two huge ones that helped clinch the playoff berth. Here is hoping that he just found a higher gear that carries over into the playoffs.
4) Curtis McElhinney
His three goals against will not jump out as anything spectacular statistically, but on a night when the team in front of him maybe experienced a bit of a letdown, he seemed to still be where he needed to be in terms of intensity and focus. He held the fort in the third period when the team was mostly just holding on. I find it fitting that the 2018-19 season ended with McElhinney winning a game. Petr Mrazek has rightfully been garnering a bunch of attention recently and will likely be the starter for game one of the playoffs, but I do not think the Hurricanes would be where they are right if not for McElhinney’s steady and calming play in net in October and November when the Hurricanes were trying to get their feet underneath them.
The playoff schedule is set to be announced Sunday morning. The Hurricanes get the Caps mostly likely on Thursday in Washington, D.C. but possibly the day before or after.