To win a playoff series or even more so go deep in the playoffs, a team will need to play at or very close to its highest level for the majority of its post-season games. But in wacky world of NHL playoff hockey, there is always also elements of luck, good bounces, overcoming adversity and injuries and a myriad of other ingredients that go into a cauldron that yields playoff success. So though playing lights out is obviously the preferred path to victory, there will also be some games where a team just goes out and gets a W and moves forward.
Though the 5-1 score might suggest otherwise, that is exactly what happened in the series opener on Monday night in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes were mostly horrible in a first period that the Bruins mostly dominated. Early on, the Bruins tilted the ice into the Canes end and played a simple game of shooting the puck whenever possible. The result was a good number of decent if maybe not great chances and also multiple goal mouth scrambles that raised the question if the puck was under Antti Raanta, in the net or somewhere else. Raanta deserves full marks for not letting the puck into the net, but even his 14 saves on 14 shots in the first period was equal parts lucky and good. He had at least three shots that he saved but seemed to not really track and had no idea where they were. The most dangerous was the puck that trickled along the goal line before Brett Pesce managed to clear it with two whacks. He had two others that were under him, but he was searching around without much idea where the puck was. But to his credit, Raanta battled, was good with first saves and like a wily veteran got results despite some scares.
The first period — the game of cat and mouse begins
In the first period, the team in front of him helped a bit clearing the crease but did little through most of the first period to relieve pressure. Boston’s game plan was simple, targeted and effective early on. With the puck on their stick, the Bruins gaining the blue line to the outside, avoiding risky or ‘hope’ centering passes and seem to have a ‘must get here’ line marked on the ice on the boards even with the offensive zone face-off circles. Once they pushed to there, they then looked for centering options but had a safety preference to further the puck around the boards to behind the Canes net. The result was a conservative approach offensively but a formula for virtually no turnovers in the middle of the rink that led to Canes transitions. Without chances to attack in transition, the Canes struggled to generate anything offensively through three quarters of the first period. At roughly that point, the shot total favored Boston by a 14 to 5 margin and if the Hurricanes had more than one legitimate scoring chance, the score keeper was being generous. A couple late power plays boosted the Canes shot total and seemed to at least untilt the ice.
Also with the aim of stymieing the Canes transition game, the Bruins more often than not backed into sort of a 1-4 forechecking scheme. The general idea was to pressure the puck aggressively and when possible to do so in a way that made a pass across to the other defender dangerous. Then the other four Bruins players more often than not started by backing up a bit and plugging up the neutral zone and jumping passes to or past the red line. Early on, this created two problems. First, easing into a playoff series, the Canes defensemen were (maybe rightfully) very conservative in terms of making passes across when the forechecking played that angle. So they had a tendency to play the puck forward, and they also had a tendency to be a bit impatient letting go of the puck when pressured. The result was a bunch of chips up the board and lengthy passes to exactly where the Bruins wanted the puck to go – into the crowded neutral zone. The Hurricanes defensemen largely avoided ‘big oopses’ with turnovers that led immediately to transition chances against, but at the same time the somewhat safe but rushed, forced passes into the neutral zone were regularly intercepted resulting in a game of ping pong where many first period Canes’ clears quickly resulted in Boston attacking again. The Hurricanes forwards were slow to adjust. The Canes defensemen needed a forward outlet that was a shorter pass in front of the stack of four Bruins. Without that, the Hurricanes mostly spent the first period chucking the puck into traffic to at least clear the defensive zone.
The late power plays decreased the gap in terms of shots and to some degree scoring chances, but in total the first period was 15ish minutes of Boston executing a game plan that worked and 5ish minutes of the Canes getting some reprieve from a couple power plays.
The second period — KISS principle (Keep it simple stupid)
The Canes started better in the second period. That start was driven by more success gaining the offensive blue line with possession and then simply shooting the puck whenever given the chance. In the first couple minutes of the second period, the Hurricanes had a couple shots on net and a few more than missed the target, but the intent was obvious. It took awhile, but sure enough when the team finally broke through, it was exactly that simple plan that netted the first two goals. First, Jaccob Slavin shot into a crowded crease area where Seth Jarvis deflected a puck down and right through Linus Ullmark for the game’s first goal. Then, Nino Niederreiter fired through Jordan Staal and the Bruins player defending him to beat a screened Ullmark to make it 2-0. Though the 2-0 score might suggest otherwise, I would not say that the Hurricanes were dominant in the second period either. But the team was better at advancing the puck such that it was at least able to play in the offensive zone. Couple that with traffic at the front of the net and a propensity to shoot, and the team was rewarded. After being maybe equal parts lucky and good in the first period, Raanta settled in and made a few big saves and was crisper in terms of either corralling shots or directing them to harmless areas. But even with the better period, the Bruins held a 14 to 12 advantage in terms of scoring chances after two periods.
The third period — KISS principle with a lead but with some errors
With a two-goal lead, the starting point for the third period was to advance the puck with the goal of playing as much as possible far from the Hurricanes net. The Hurricanes did that for the most part but did have some miscues. Charlie McAvoy used his time to work behind the net before finding Taylor Hall in the middle of the ice at the top of the face-off circles to make it 2-1. Later, Vincent Trocheck had space to advance the puck on his own but instead opted for a dangerous pass to Jarvis who was at the end of a shift. Situational awareness would have said to move the puck forward, let Jarvis change and live to fight another day. Instead, the turnover just outside the blue line led quickly to a shot in transition that luckily rang the post and stayed out. Ian Cole and Brendan Smith also had a couple misadventures handling the puck with one of those leading directly to a dangerous chance. But despite some mishaps, the next goal came when Trocheck made a pretty feed to Teuvo Teravainen who finished bar down to extend the Canes lead to 3-1. A Trocheck finish from behind the end line off Ullmark’s back and in and then an empty-netter from Sebastian Aho to Andrei Svechnikov who finished piled on to make a 5-1 final.
At the top level (the score board) which is all that really matters in the end, the game was a fun 5-1 win, but if I look a layer or two below the surface, I rate this game about a 5 out of 10 for the Canes. Especially after settling in, Raanta was good, and you cannot quibble with the results. The Canes were opportunistic even if not great offensively. But the slow start, trouble advancing the puck and/or generating offense for nearly two periods was not great. Tuesday will be full of video and/or whiteboard time to try to decrease the 20 giveaways from Monday’s game.
But the playoffs are very much a results business, and the W is what really matters.
Player and other notes
1) Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Staal’s line
Of the Canes forwards, I thought Nino Niederreiter was most impactful. He had the second goal to mark the score sheet, but it was actually the rest of his game that stood out. He was consistently physical. He uprooted at least three Bruins and planted them on their butts or backs. He won puck battles on the boards. And he was one-third of a successful effort by Jordan Staal’s line to neutralize Marchand and Bergeron despite a ton of Bruins puck possession time especially early in the game.
Though I called out Niederreiter, Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast also deserve credit here.
2) Jesperi Kotkaniemi
He did not get on the score sheet for his efforts, but I liked Kotkaniemi’s game. He had a couple nifty moves with the puck on his stick entering the offensive zone. Both times with one (or even two) defenders in pretty good position, he created good scoring chances – one for himself and one for Martin Necas.
3) Ian Cole/Brendan Smith
I thought the third period struggled defensively. As noted above, the Hurricanes defensemen had some issues advancing the puck from their own end. Cole and Smith had a couple costly turnovers and also got hemmed in their own end a bit. Each also picked up a minor penalty. Especially when the series shifts to Boston and Cassidy can dictate match ups a bit more, this will be something to watch. I would not expect Brind’Amour to make lineup changes after a 5-1 win, but if the current trajectory continues, Ethan Bear might be worth trying.
4) Seth Jarvis
Good for the rookie scoring in his first NHL playoff game and even better that it came from doing the lunch pail work going to the front of the net. Especially in the playoffs, scoring is largely about putting in the effort to spend as much time as possible where goals happen. Hopefully that starting point hammers home the importance of fighting for space between the face-off circles for Jarvis but also the rest of the Canes forwards.
5) Brady Skjei / Brett Pesce
The highlight was the puck that Brett Pesce swept off the goal line, but in less spectacular fashion, the Canes top defense pairing was steady and solid throughout. Even when the Canes were hemmed in a bit, they did not give up much in terms of grade A scoring chances. The duo did the heavy lifting against Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand who did not find the score sheet.
6) Linus Ullmark
The loss was not one that I would pin on Linus Ullmark, but at the same time, there are two things to consider. First, Antti Raanta was better. Second, Ullmark did get beaten on a couple that maybe would want back. The Jarvis deflection is obviously tough since the puck changed direction close to the net. If Jarvis tips that over Ullmark’s shoulder or around him, he can just shake his head because there is nothing he can do, but instead the puck found a hole right through him. Goalie 101 there is to try to get square to where the puck is coming from, make sure you do not leave any holes and hope it hits you. He left a hole. Then the Trocheck goal late was just a bad one. Ullmark was beaten from behind the end line when he did not get all the way against the post giving Trocheck the chance to niftily bank the puck off him. With Ullmark and Swayman splitting regular season games evenly, it will be interesting to see if Bruce Cassidy sticks with Ullmark for game two. My hunch would be that he does and changes things up in game three in Boston if the Bruins lose again and Ullmark is not great.
Next up is game two at PNC Arena on Wednesday.