After the longest of waits, the Carolina Hurricanes returned to the ice in what felt almost like a surreal event. Sure the game was only an exhibition game, but it felt like so much more in our chaotic world over the past months.
The game is significant with Rod Brind’Amour having only a single game to assess individual players and combinations and try to combine that with longer-term track records to figure out how to ice a playoff winner again.
In total, the Hurricanes had ups and downs. Rather than doing a recap, I will focus instead on my biggest takeaways as relates to assessing players and figuring out what to do for Saturday.
Tough night for the blue line
In total, I thought the defense mostly struggled. I would rate Sami Vatanen as mostly good (though even he had a bad turnover when he mostly whiffed trying to sweep a puck to Jaccob Slavin at the defensive blue line. Haydn Fleury was steady and made some good decisions stepping up into the play offensively. And that is about where my positives end for the blue line.
Jaccob Slavin had an uncharacteristically tough night. He failed to identify where the passing lane was defending a 2-on-1 for the Capitals’ first goal. He stepped up and had Tom Wilson go right around him to create another Capitals 2-on-1 and a goal. And on the Vatanen mishap mentioned above, he was a half step slow getting a piece of the puck to play it to the boards or a piece of the Caps player who retrieved it. In general, Slavin just looked a half step slow which is completely out of character for an elite defenseman whose greatest strength is arguably exactly that type of quickness and agility in small spaces.
Jake Gardiner started okay, but had a series of mishaps and/or ‘meh’ plays throughout the second period. On the play where Slavin was beaten Gardiner was too deep and unaware of the passing lane such that Wilson had a free pass to move the puck across to Ovechkin. Gardiner had another player where T. J. Oshie sized him up at the blue line, I think realized who he had in front of him and then just blew right around him and to the net. I think increasingly good NHL forwards are realizing that Gardner at times struggles with having the quickness and/or lateral mobility to defend speed one on one off the rush. Gardiner finished his series of second period struggles by taking a penalty. Gardiner looked good with the puck on his stick, but his defensive struggles made his outing a mixed bag that leaned negative for me.
Joel Edmundson collected a couple of minor penalties and was front and center with defense partner Trevor van Riemsdyk when they looked overmatched against Washington’s top line who exploited the match up to the tune of a goal.
As noted above, Haydn Fleury was steady and showed a good knack for when/where to join the play on offense. Brind’Amour seemed to have him out of the top 6 recently at least based on practice combinations, so it will be interesting to see how much stock he puts in Wednesday’s game versus longer track recods.
Brady Skjei did not stand out to me a ton. On this night, when a lot of what stood out defensively was negative, I would consider quiet to be more positive than negative.
Finally, I liked what I saw from Sami Vatanen in his first game (finally) in a Canes uniform. He did have the one bad turnover at the defensive blue line, but in total I thought he looked steady and capable next to Slavin. The one thing that really jumps out about his game is how well he supports the puck giving forwards a safe passing lane and outlet. That combined with a propensity to keep things simple and shoot, I think makes him easy to play with. He helps forwards out and also makes it clear that other forwards should head to the front of the net when the puck is headed in his direction.
Brind’Amour is tasked with figuring how much to rely on Wednesday’s performance versus instead counting on the group of veterans to take a step forward and be up to speed when real hockey kicks off in three days.
Better news on the forward front
The forward group deserves some amount (less than the defensemen) of the blame for the Canes sloppy play at times on Wednesday. But in total, I thought there were more positives with the forward group especially among players who could provide upside offensively. Ryan Dzingel was dangerous and had multiple good opportunities. He had a point blank chance and a post in one sequence and a few other decent chances. The Canes’ best forward line in the first period was Niederreiter/Trocheck/Foegele. Nino Niederreiter is another player who could provide scoring upside over what he provided during the regular season. Niederreiter was elevated to Aho’s line later in the game when Brind’Amour started tinkering a bit. And finally Vincent Trocheck was a going concern offensively especially early in the game. His only notable ding was the turnover and penalty he had when he turned the puck over at the offensive blue line on the power play.
That group of three players (Dzingel, Niederreiter, Trocheck) being productive is the difference between the Canes being a bit top heavy offensively versus being more balanced with at least two scoring lines.
As far as the other forwards go, other than the 5-on-3 goal by Teuvo Teravainen on a Sebastian Aho pass, I thought they were a bit quiet at even strength. The best scoring chances for their line early in the game were a couple individual efforts by Andrei Svechnikov.
Morgan Geekie continues to make plays. He increasingly looks like a player who maybe has the ‘it’ factor needed to stay at the NHL level.
A big decision in net?
As if Rod Brind’Amour does not already have enough to sort out for Saturday’s first playoff game, the goalies did him no favors in terms of making his decision easy. To a large degree Petr Mrazek was victimized by some shoddy play in front of him. The first goal he did have a chance on, as he was beaten right through him. But that #8 guy on Washington is decent at doing that to NHL goalies. The other two goals were much more so defensive break downs where Mrazek had no chance. So Mrazek’s three goals against in 30 minutes are inflated.
But James Reimer was phenomenal, and especially in the third period he too was challenged by some ‘iffy’ play in front of him but stood tall.
So based on the merit of Wednesday’s game alone, Reimer had the decided edge and would garner the start on Saturday. But with two veteran goalies, the question is how much stock Brind’Amour puts in 60 minutes of exhibition hockey versus longer-term results.
I lean slightly toward sticking with Mrazek as the #1 and not going knee-jerk based on 60 minutes of exhibition hockey. The schedule sets up to switch horses if needed with games 2 and 3 being a back-to-back set. If Mrazek does not play well in the series opener, I think you go to Reimer in game 2 possibly with him playing both halves of the back-to-back.
My hunch is actually that Brind’Amour will do the opposite and go with the hotter hand in Reimer.
It should be noted that Brind’Amour has an incredibly good track record with these goalie decisions, so In Rod We Trust.
What say you Canes fans?
Hopefully everyone was able to clear late afternoon on their schedules and did not hit issues with TV blackouts…
1) Who stood out for you most positively against the Capitals?
2) Was I too harsh on the blue line, or do you think they struggled as much as I did? More generally, which players/things stood out most negatively for you?
3) In general, how much do you think Wednesday’s game impacts Brind’Amour’s lineup versus a longer-term view?
4) Who wants to take a shot at building a lineup for Saturday?
TWO DAYS UNTIL CAROLINA HURRICANES PLAYOFF HOCKEY!