Brief recap of Hurricanes 4-1 win over the Lightning
As is often the case for road games early in preseason, the home team has a number of the top players dressed to play in front of the home crowd and skip some of the preseason travel, and just the opposite the road team travels without many of its top players and instead with a young group. That was exactly the case on Tuesday night in Tampa Bay with the Lightning icing what would figure to be the superior team on paper.
But the paper meant nothing. The Hurricanes dictated play and were the aggressor pretty much from the outset. The young forward group to a man, attacked the puck and took away space especially on the forecheck and in the neutral. The result was a strong start in terms of puck possession and minimal pressure 5v5 on the defense and the goalie. Combined with a shaky first period from Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Hurricanes jumped out to a 2-0 lead. First, tryout defenseman Michal Cajkovsky made the most of his chance to suit up in a NHL uniform when he scored through a Morgan Geekie screen to put the Canes up 1-0. Cajkovsky. He looked you the next coming of Brent Burns for most of the first period playing much of the period creeping down to the top of the face-off circle to support the puck and then firing at will when it arrived. He had a least five first period shots, mostly of a good quality. Then Lucas Wallmark beat Vasilevskiy cleanly on a soft goal to post the young Canes squad to a 2-0 lead.
The second period was more of the same with the Hurricanes being the faster, more aggressive team. Valentin Zykov scored next on a tip on a Patrick Brown blast from the point. Tampa Bay did net a goal next, but the Hurricanes then finished it off with a pretty power play tic-tac-toe passing play that saw Wallmark find Phil Di Giuseppe alone in front who then fed Andrei Svechnikov who made no mistake finishing.
The story of the game was the Hurricanes forwards play. They dictated tempo and made it miserable for Tampa Bay to do anything with the puck. Both Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic were solid with a few good saves each, but the volume of shots they saw was modest. And though the blue line held up pretty well, I credit it more to the forwards doing a tremendous job pressuring the puck in all three zones.
Player and other notes
1) Lucas Wallmark
Because of his status as my front runner for the center slot vacated by Victor Rask, Wallmark had his only bullet point in my game preview. He put a stake in the ground with a strong performance all-around. He had a fortuitous goal and also a pretty assist both on the power play. He also had a couple other plays where he put the puck on Svechnikov’s stick with a chance to score. After serviceable but ‘meh’ offensive play in his short NHL audition in 2017-18, Tuesday’s game was the first time he demonstrated offensive upside in a Hurricanes uniform.
2) Greg McKegg
The veteran AHLer would not be high on anyone’s watch list nor would he be a player expected to compete for an NHL roster spot, but if it is true that these things will be decided on the ice and not based on history, expectations or pedigree, then I think McKegg took a nice step forward on Tuesday. McKegg had only a single assist but still played well enough to make a case for being the Hurricanes best forward on a night when many played well. He, as much as anyone, played a fast and aggressive game that attacked the puck when the Lightning had it and advanced it north-south when he had it on his stick. He could easily have had a couple goals and maybe more significantly gave Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour something to think about.
3) Andrei Svechnikov
Svechnikov had the pretty snipe on the Di Giuseppe pass and also a secondary assist, but I think what was most encouraging was how comfortable he looked with the pace and also fast play in crowded places. My reference point is Elias Lindholm as an 18-year old who despite being a similarly high draft pick, just looked overwhelmed at times with the pace and physical play in small spaces. Svechnikov showed good vision and awareness with the puck on his stick in a crowded neutral zone and looked equally comfortable in the corners. More succinctly, he looked ready to play in the NHL.
4) Valentin Zykov
The simplicity and consistency of Zykov’s game is wonderful. In total, I would not say that he stood out as much as a few other players in terms of ‘wow’ factor. But Zykov did what he always does which is to go to the top of the crease whenever possible, create havoc for the goalie and make it productive. He had a tip from point blank range early that was on net but saved and then another later for a tip goal. In a game where beating elite netminders is just incredibly difficult when they track the puck, Zykov changes that dynamic by making it hard on the goalie whether he is actually scoring just making a mess of a distraction in front him.
5) Petr Mrazek
His play could be underrated a bit because of the small shot volume he faced in his 30ish minutes of play. But it’s hard not to like perfect, and he also made a handful of really good saves along the way. I am on record as saying that preseason play counts pretty much zero for goalies, but nonetheless Mrazek deserves credit for a strong first outing in a Canes uniform.
6) Michal Cajkovsky
As noted above, the defenseman on a tryout contract made the most of his opportunity early on peppering shots at the net one after another. Cajkovsky picked up two minor penalties and a couple times had trouble defending onrushing forwards to the outside. He gets a mixed review, but his sense in terms of stepping into play offensively was at least enough to garner attention. As he is just setting foot into NHL action, it will be interesting to see how quickly he can adjust to NHL speed. My estimation after one game is that he is not ready for the NHL level, but might be worth a contract and AHL ice time to see how rapidly he can adjust.
7) The burning question
The forward play was impressive. They generally played a simple and aggressive game pursuing the puck in all three zones. At least theoretically, the pace and aggressiveness (and hopefully the success in Tuesday’s game) could potentially be the first part of what we call “Brind’Amour hockey”. But to be honest, I think the Caniac Nation, myself included, is so desperate for signs of a positive trajectory that 60 minutes of hockey in game 1 of the preseason could be taken for more than it really is.
As I said on Twitter after the game, the forward group on Tuesday was largely comprised of young prospects eager to make an impression and a sprinkling of depth ‘energy’ type forwards including Brock McGinn, Jordan Martinook and Phil Di Giuseppe whose strength is playing this brand of hockey.
So the burning question is whether a lineup of players on Wednesday who mostly already has jobs and whose strength is more so skill can repeat Tuesday.