An important starting point is to note that the Canes 3-1 loss (which included an empty-netter) to the Rangers on Sunday was not the same as the three losses in Boston. The Canes losses in Boston were characterized by sloppy efforts where they mostly deserved what they got. Against the Bruins, the Canes had consecutive efforts in which they had to try to kill nine penalties, were sloppy in terms of puck management and coverage and were just generally outplayed. The loss to the Rangers saw the Canes generate 44 shots on goal and another 31 that were either blocked or missed the net and gave up only three power plays. At a quality of play level, the Canes were very much in the game Wednesday, could have won an even or better game with a bounce or two and arguably deserved it.
So an important starting point is recognizing that the Canes level of play on Wednesday is at least in the neighborhood of what will be needed to break through with a road playoff win.
That said, the half-empty version of Sunday’s loss is that it did feature a couple key recurring problems from all of the road losses:
1) The Canes lost the special teams battle. Despite giving up only three power plays, the Canes were minus one goal on special teams. The power play struggled again, while the Rangers scored a single power play goal.
2) The opponents’ top scorers outscored the Canes top scoring line. As has been the general trend, the Aho, Svechnikov and Jarvis were unable to crack the scoreboard while Zibanejad and Kreider combined for two goals.
So what does it take for the Canes to break through for a road win?
First and foremost, winning on the road in the playoffs requires sound play from the entire roster. With the ability to dictate match ups on home ice, an opponent will quickly exploit any weak links. The Canes have been a mixed bag in this regard. The Boston losses were sloppy in terms of puck management and sorting things out defensively. That contributed to the volume of penalties taken and also grade A chances given up.
Second, the challenge of winning on the road is much easier if the Canes can be break even or better on special teams. With the power play struggling, the easiest path here is just to stay out of the box and play 5-on-5 hockey. For the power play, I think it is time for simpler is better. I would consider giving Jordan Staal more power play ice time with the simple task list of winning the face-off and then parking at the top of the crease. Same goes for other players. More often than not, the way out of a power play slump comes not from pretty passing plays but rather from ugly goals battling at the top of the crease.
Third, Aho’s line needs to have a big game or two. Playing against the other team’s best defensively is challenging, so it is not fair to expect Aho’s line to score in bunches every game on the road. But they need to find a way to break through here and there versus being shut down completely. Per my second point, both Aho and Svechnikov need to make a concerted effort to get themselves and the puck to between the face-off circles where goals happen. Both players right now are prone to becoming perimeter players.
Fourth is a wild card which is finding a hero. The Hurricanes found unlikely heroes in Seth Jarvis and Max Domi in game 5 and game 7 wins at home. A single break out game on the road from an unlikely hero could lead to a road win and also a series win. The candidates are many right now. Neither Jesperi Kotakniemi nor Martin Necas have been a difference-maker in any of the 10 playoff games thus far. Both have the skill and finishing ability for a big game. But as demonstrated by Max Domi’s huge game 7 against the Bruins, it can be anyone.
Game 4 is huge. If the Canes pull out any kind of ugly win, they return home with a chance to win a short five-game series. With a loss, it very much feels like another seven-game series is on the way with an ‘anything can happen’ game 7 again.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree that the game 3 loss to the Rangers was enough different from the Bruins series road losses, or do you feel like it was just a lesser version of the same?
2) If you had to pick only one factor/improvement that will lead to a Canes road playoff win, what would it be?