This article will be 1 of 2 first looking backward at what can be gleaned from the Islanders series and later 2 of 2 looking forward to the second round match up with the New Jersey Devils.
Entering late March, the Islanders were my preferred choice for a first-round match up for the Hurricanes. My reasoning is that the Islanders style of play and personnel offered a low ceiling offensively compared to other possible first-round match ups. I did not really want any part of the Florida Panthers who had suddenly figured it out and would enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. I also did not like the idea of trying to match up offensively with the Rangers who added veteran scorers Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko at the trade deadline nor did I prefer trying to match up with the young skilled scoring talent of the Devils. My second choice of the possibilities would have been the Penguins who I think also had a fairly low ceiling.
Based on how the first round of the 2023 NHL Playoffs played out in the Eastern Conference, I think my initial preferences were on target. Florida proved to be dangerous in knocking out the Bruins, and from watching the Rangers/Devils series I think either team would have presented a greater challenge than the Islanders match up that the Canes earned by winning the Metro Conference.
A slog through the mud for round 1
As for the Islanders series, it played out about as I would have expected in terms of being a slog through the mud except maybe even worse. Watching the Canes versus Isles was night and day different from any other series. The lack of stick to stick puck movement and volume of dump ins, icings and just moving the puck forward into the next zone without much coming of it made for war of attrition/wait for a mistake hockey. The burning question is whether this is al the Canes are capable of minus some key forwards who could help with puck movement and passing or if this was largely a function of the Islanders style of play. The positive side of the coin says that the Canes are capable of winning that kind of game if necessary which could be important going forward minus 3 of what would be their top 4 wings in Pacioretty, Svechnikov and Teravainen. The negative side of the coin is that this level of offensive production might not be good enough against the Devils or other higher-end offensive teams left in the playoffs.
The same as 2022?
Entering the 2022 NHL playoffs, I finished the first part of my playoffs preview by writing:
Tomorrow’s Daily Cup of Joe will likely include a second key to deep playoff success, but if forced to name one thing past the standard goaltending and special teams, I will say that the ability to get offensive production and solid play from two of Necas, Jarvis, Kotkaniemi or Domi would be my choice.
That group did not deliver which left the Canes light offensively last year and forced to try to grind out a bunch of narrow wins with minimal margin for error. Max Domi contributed a huge game 7 versus the Bruins which propelled the Canes to a game 7 win in the first round, but he did not really factor in otherwise. Seth Jarvis had a decent playoffs in terms of scoring production. But playing together on the fourth line Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Martin Necas were invisible. The result was not enough sources of offense, especially on the road where the Canes were 0-6 when teams could focus on shutting down the Canes’ top scorers.
The team attempted to add some depth scoring-wise when it added proven veteran scorer Max Pacioretty over the summer, but two major injuries limited him to a handful of games sandwiched between a season without any significant new top 6 scoring help. In addition, Vincent Trocheck left via free agency and then Andei Svechnikov’s season-ending injury potentially became the straw that broke the camel’s back even before the team lost Teuvo Teravainen in the first round of the playoffs.
The result is a return to 2022 with the team desperately needing a couple players to step up offensively in the playoffs. That need was not fulfilled in a first round series unfriendly to the skilled, skating variety of offense. In six games, Necas produced a goal and two assists but not a single scoring point at even strength. Kotkaniemi was virtually invisible like in 2022 producing only a single assist. At even strength in six games, the Canes scored only 8 goals. (…to go with 5 power play goals, 1 shorthanded goal and 2 overtiime goals).
Isles’ series positives
The positives were a power play that had some ups and downs but along the way had a couple big games that played a leading role in a couple wins. The penalty kill also carried over its strong play from the regular season leading to a special teams advantage. The goaltending was not perfect but it was good enough to give the team a chance in every game. Even the 5-1 loss was a 1-1 game into the third period before the Islanders scored and then the dam broke. And the Canes blue line was a strength. Jaccob Slavin and the Brady Skjei/Brett Pesce pairing were steady as usual. And Brent Burns looked like the seasoned veteran that he is comfortable in a physical, rugged series. He had five assists but could easily have had 4-5 more points after showing a good ability to generate and/or find offense in a series where that was difficult. Staal’s line was also as expected being solid defensively but a bit light offensively. The line netted only two goals in six games (none for Staal and Martinook) but Fast’s overtime-winner was a big one. Finally, the Canes found a couple unexpected X factors offensively. Mackenzie McEachern had a huge game 5 to help the Canes break the road losing streak, and veteran Paul Stastny had two huge goals including the series winner in overtime. Antti Raanta was not perfect, but he was good enough to keep the team in games. After a long layoff, Frederik Andersen put forward a great game 6 and figures to start the second round.
Isles’ series negatives
I touched on the biggest negative above which is the challenge that the Canes had generating offense 5-on-5. Minus an uprising from a couple of the young players or a bunch more X factor scoring from the veterans, the team is desperately light on on finishers on the wing. Another big concern was the Canes’ intermittent lapses defensively and with puck management. The game 5 loss at home could be completely pinned on mistakes. Unless the Canes find a bunch more offense, they will need to be solid air tight defensively to hang with teams who have an advantage offensively.
Netting it out
At the end of the day, the playoffs are simply about winning and advancing. The Canes did that and per a graphic that the team posted on social media are the only team to do so (win a round in the playoffs) over the last five years. That is a huge testament to what Rod Brind’Amour has done to boost the team’s level of play and at the same time become a model of consistency.
The series went about as I expected with two teams grinding out games that were light on offense but was even uglier than I expected. The first six games did not boost my pre-playoff opinion that minus too many scoring forwards, this team is not built to win a series against some of the better offensive teams in the playoffs. But that said, there are always wild cards that can change this…a sizable advantage in goaltending or special teams can easily tilt an entire series and a player or two or a line hitting a 3-4 game hot streak can do the same.
Up next (either later today or otherwise on Wednesday), I will look forward to the series against the New Jersey Devils.
What say you Canes fans?
1) For those who watched other series, did you similarly think that the Canes/Isles series was comparably uglier hockey by a wide margin?
2) What were your biggest positives for the first round? What were your biggest negatives?