With the long layoff which has been unkind to the Hurricanes during the 2018-19 regular season, my game preview started with watching how the Hurricanes would start and if they would be able to dial up their game after the long layoff. At least in terms of pace and intensity, the Hurricanes started on time and were the better team for half of the first period. The volume of quality chances was low, but Jordan Staal and Jaccob Slavin both had good looks from inside the face-off circle. Each missed the net with his chance. The rest of the period was the story of opportunistic scoring by the defending Stanley Cup champions. First, Nicklas Backstrom scored on a fairly harmless looking shot from well out after waltzing over the blue line. The shot was well-placed, but Petr Mrazek also looked a bit frozen. Then the Hurricanes unwisely tested fate by giving the Capitals a couple power play chances. On the first power play, Evgeny Kuznetsov smartly exploited the obvious scouting report on the Capitals power play. From the strong side of the Caps power play setup, Kuznetsov patiently waited out Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce until both leaned too far toward defending a cross ice pass to Alexander Ovechkin. He then zipped a back door pass to Nicklas Backstrom who finished easily into an open net. Next, Ovechkin picked up a loose puck in close with the Hurricanes scrambling around a bit and suddenly the Hurricanes were down 3-0.
In terms of dialing up the intensity after the layoff, the Hurricanes did well, but the Hurricanes lost early and often in terms of avoiding a special teams battle.
Early in the second period, the Hurricanes barely survived another Capitals power play that could possibly have ended things early and played better from there. The Hurricanes carried play 5-on-5 and did a reasonable even if not great converting that to decent even if not great chances. The Hurricanes were the better team in the second period, but the Capitals mostly minimized the return for that, and without a goal, the Hurricanes entered the third period still down by three goals.
Then it happened. Rod Brind’Amour shuffled the lines, and more significantly Andrei Svechnikov rose up. The period started with the Hurricanes gambling for goals a bit and getting caught up ice. But Mrazek made a pair of saves on breakaways and two more from players unguarded in the slot. Then Svechnikov led a Hurricanes comeback. First, he beat a really good defenseman John Carlson and fired a pretty shot into the corner of the net. Then he sniped a Lucas Wallmark pass right past Holtby before he could slide across. Suddenly, the Hurricanes also had a star rising up in a huge game. The result was a Hurricanes in-game surge and a chance to do the unthinkable and make up a three-goal deficit in the third period. But two mostly underwhelming Hurricanes power plays late left the Hurricanes with a consolation prize when the Caps scored an empty-netter to seal a 4-2 win despite the Canes strong third period.
The Hurricanes were fine 5-on-5, but had a two-goal deficit on special teams and also lost out on just not being able to capitalize on scoring chances as much.
Player and other notes
1) The X-factors
In my game preview, I finished with two X-factors — goaltending and special teams. Those X-factors were the deciding factors in the game. With the Hurricanes carrying play in the first half of the first period, the long shot by Backstrom that beat Mrazek cleanly changed the trajectory of the game. The shot was well-placed, but from that distance Mrazek has every chance to stop it. Then possibly with the setback of the first goal, the Hurricanes took two penalties and struggled mightily to defend the Caps power play. Mrazek was phenomenal in the third period. The Canes admirably pushed back. Note also that the Hurricanes had two power play chances late that could have tied the game but did not. At the end of the day, the game was decided by two X-factors.
2) Not enough from the team’s best players
Backstrom broke the ice and scored again. Ovechkin fired at will on the power play all night and netted a goal. Evgeny Kuznetsov was good with the puck on his stick and had the heady assist on the Backstrom goal. The Capitals top offensive players all contributed. John Carlson assisted on all three Capitals goals. On the Hurricanes side, Andrei Svechnikov obviously rose up, but the Hurricanes did not get enough from its best players. Sebastian Aho had a quiet night. Justin Williams picked up one of the penalties and had a couple turnovers in bad places that led to scoring chances against. Without more from the Canes top players in game two and beyond, the series will likely be tough sledding.
3) Andrei Svechnikov
Needless to say, he was impressive in Thursday’s loss. After seemingly regressing and picking up a stick/obstruction penalty early, he channeled the pure goal scorer in his pedigree and led the Hurricanes back into the game. His first goal saw him blow right around a top-tier NHL defenseman, cut to the net at a tough angle and then snipe a corner. His second goal was more the sniper variety as he received a pass and got the puck off his stick and into the net before Holtby could get over. The game has the potential to be the type that propels him to a next level in his early progression hopefully on the way to being an elite NHL scorer.
4) The officiating
First, let me clearly say that I do not think the officiating decided the game. I actually thought all of the penalties called on the Hurricanes were legitimate, so the Caps rightfully had those power plays and the goals that resulted. But at the same time, I thought the officiating was horrible in terms of not calling interference on players charging others when ‘the puck was in the vicinity’ plays where the player being checked very clearly did not have the puck. It started with Tom Wilson running Jordan Staal early and continued all game with Wilson, Niskanen and Orpik running around. That makes for a dangerous and unfair hockey game when players need to have to try to protect themselves in situations where the rules say they should not.
5) Players I liked
Past Svechnikov, I liked Dougie Hamilton’s game, and I thought Micheal Ferland had a strong game. Lucas Wallmark played an underrated role in Svechnikov’s outburst putting the puck on his stick a couple times after realizing he was the hot hand. I really liked Mrazek’s third period. By no means am I saying that everyone else played poorly, but it is the playoffs and the Capitals are good. The Canes need at least a couple more players to be great.
Next up is a 3pm matinee on Saturday.