Home ice advantage, who needs it?
After the first two games of the second round, the Carolina Hurricanes were in a less-than-ideal position. Battling the Tampa Bay Lightning is tough enough. However, after dropping consecutive heartbreakers, in which they were arguably the better team, both on home ice, and having to head to Florida and try to crawl back into the series without a third of their top-six, the outlook was bleak. Thanks to heroics from star center Sebastian Aho and a monstrous effort from goaltender Petr Mrazek, making his first appearance in nearly a month, this is suddenly anyone’s series, though.
The road ahead is still extremely difficult. Winning two in Tampa Bay, even with 50% of it already complete, is still an incredibly tall task. It’s entirely conceivable that Tampa Bay comes out with a vengeance and wins Game 4, after which having to win three consecutive games against the defending Stanley Cup champions and their $98.8M roster may be too much to overcome.
Regardless, the Hurricanes have a lot to be proud of after an impressive road effort. These are the three largest takeaways from a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 3.
Petr Mrazek, Ladies and Gentlemen
First and foremost, the number one reason the Hurricanes got themselves back into the series was the veteran Czech goaltender, Mrazek.
I’m gonna tell on myself here: I didn’t love the move to bench Alex Nedeljkovic. The Barclay Goodrow goal he allowed in Game 1 was… not good, but it was also kind of fluky; he missed the post with his pad as he tried to hug the short side post, and therefore lost his balance, allowing a large hole for the puck to squeeze through. Otherwise, he’d been absolutely stellar, largely going toe-to-toe with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Mrazek has had a phenomenal year himself, but he also hadn’t played since May 10, a span of nearly a month. Even prior to that, he missed a massive chunk of the year due to wrist surgery. Bringing him in cold in a must-win game seemed incredibly risky to me; but, to say that risk paid off would be quite the understatement.
Mrazek made 35 saves on 37 shots, keeping the Hurricanes square when Tampa Bay mounted serious pushes throughout the second half of the game. He was razor-sharp and came up with every big save needed to ensure the Hurricanes never had to play from behind in Game 3.
I didn’t really think Mrazek could outplay Nedeljkovic, even though I understand the thought process behind giving a rookie goaltender a “mental break” during the grind of the NHL postseason. Instead, now I’m thinking the net is Mrazek’s for Game 4, as it would be tough to take him out after that effort.
On the flip side, the biggest issue for Mrazek throughout his career has been consistency. No one has ever doubted his ability to play like an elite goalie. He has done it for stretches, months, even seasons at a time. Unfortunately, he has also had stretches where his overaggressiveness got the best of him, and he ended up allowing a steady flow of goals against.
So who will it be? The rookie that carried the Hurricanes to this point, to begin with, or the veteran who has been here before and could potentially get hot and carry this team a long, long way? All I know for sure is I am glad I don’t have to be the one to make that decision.
A nod to the towels given out at PNC Arena in Game 2, this game was all about sticking with it, fighting until the last second, and “next man up.”
So much about the postseason is things breaking right; getting a bounce that ends up in the net, players catching fire at the right time, or simply just good injury luck. For much of this postseason, things have certainly not gone like that for the Hurricanes in any of those areas.
The injury bug hit hard this time, as Nino Niederreiter went down with an undisclosed injury ahead of Game 1. Then Vincent Trocheck got banged up and was lost in Game 2. The Hurricanes scored two goals, both on the power play, in two games on home ice. Then, suddenly, they were missing a third of their top six – and two of their top three leading goal scorers in the regular season.
The Hurricanes didn’t use it as an excuse. Morgan Geekie drew into the lineup for the first time in the playoffs and was noticeable right off the bat. The young forward has displayed excellent chemistry with roommate Steven Lorentz on multiple occasions in the regular season, and Game 3 was no different. He had multiple scoring chances early, including a nice move in close where he got Vasilevskiy to bite and nearly finished high to the glove side. He frequently took up residence around the Tampa Bay goaltender’s crease – a known habit of Geekie’s and one the Hurricanes have sorely needed. Don’t be surprised to see a big Geekie goal at some point in this series, thanks to his tight-quarters skill and willingness to work the dirty areas and pay the price in front of the net.
Geekie wasn’t the only rookie depth player to make a positive impact. Defenseman Jake Bean, who has struggled mightily at times in the postseason, spent a large chunk of the night paired with Brett Pesce, and the move paid off. Playing with a rock-solid partner appeared to do wonders for the psyche of the young blueliner, as Bean had easily his best game of the playoffs. He looked substantially more confident moving the puck, searching for his shot, and stretching the ice on the breakout. Those are his strengths. However, he also made a wonderful play to tie up Steven Stamkos and deny the Lightning captain of a Grade-A opportunity in the opening period. It was definitely a large step in the right direction and would be a big story for the team if he can continue to play at that level. Former partner Jani Hakanpaa was fantastic in his own right, so the move paid dividends all around.
The ability for the entire lineup to keep grinding, even when things seemed to break poorly for them, was simply impressive. Alex Killorn’s tying goal was a good example of a potential gut-punch. On the power play, Lightning center Brayden Point carried the puck through the middle into the Carolina zone. As they always do, the Hurricanes had the blue line stacked very well, three across with one man back in case anyone got through.
As Point tried to gain the offensive zone, Aho and Jaccob Slavin, who has one of the best defensive sticks I’ve ever seen and rarely, if ever, misses a poke check or strip, converged on the Lightning center. Despite getting a big piece of the puck, and credit to the Lightning center for sticking with it and corralling the puck extremely quickly before the Hurricanes could recover, the puck bounced right back to Point through the traffic, and suddenly Carolina was in scramble mode. A few seconds later, Nikita Kucherov hit Killorn in the slot for a one-timer and boom, tie hockey game.
The Hurricanes could have very easily wavered after the 2-0 lead was rapidly vanquished. And full disclosure (for the second time, showing how much I actually know), a part of me expected the Lightning to smell blood in the water and go on the attack, potentially all-but-wrapping-up this series in the final 20 minutes of the game. While to be fair, the Lightning did control play for long stretches, the Hurricanes never broke, even despite a considerable amount of bending.
Carolina stuck around, created some chances when they could, then took advantage on the power play in overtime when the opportunity presented itself. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good, and I think the Hurricanes were lucky Mrazek was absolutely locked in, enough to give the team a chance to pull out the win.
SAT’s Return, in Dominant Fashion
Much has been written about the Hurricanes’ top line. Much angst has emerged every time the line gets broken up in the name of balanced scoring. But, with their backs against the wall, head coach Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t hesitate; he whips out his Ace and lets them go to work.
Andrei Svechnikov, Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen made up one of the deadliest lines in hockey in the 2019-20 season. All three players scored over 60 points in the shortened, 68-game season. Aho was on an 82-game pace of well over 40 goals, and Svechnikov posted the best marks of his three-year career in each of the three traditional offensive stats (goals, assists, points).
Yet, many times, the line just simply seemed “off” when they were used in ’20-’21. This is somewhat understandable, with Svechnikov fighting through a one-year-delayed sophomore slump where nothing went his way and Teravainen suffering a concussion in February that kept him out for over 30 games. They weren’t nearly the dominant force they had shown to be in the past, so Brind’Amour has spent more time than not moving his lines around to try to balance his most dangerous offensive weapons throughout the lineup. However, with the team desperate for a spark, the trio showed they can turn it on, and they did so in a big way in Game 3.
On the first goal of the game, the line’s speed, vision, patience, and skill was on display. The Lightning defense, and Victor Hedman in particular, did a wonderful job of choking off a chance off the rush after Aho had blown by everyone with his elite skating, winning a race and set up the chance. Svechnikov received the pass from his centerman, but instead of throwing a shot into Hedman’s shin pads or a forcing pass that was well covered, he delayed and found a trailing Pesce for a beautiful, top corner bomb to open the scoring.
Just over two and a half minutes later, the line went to work again. Slavin hit Teravainen with a stretch pass at center ice, and Teravainen made an absurd, filthy (no words will do it justice, just watch below) no-look deflection/touch pass between his legs that perfectly hit Aho in stride at the far blue line for a breakaway. Aho beat Vasilevskiy five-hole for a 2-0 lead.
Finally, with the team somewhat on its heels and a massive overtime power-play opportunity, again the Finnish duo teamed up when needed the most. Teravainen slid down the half-wall, found a seam, worked the Tampa Bay penalty kill box with his eyes, and fired a pass against the grain just as Aho popped out from the goal line to the high slot for a one-timer. Jordan Staal deflected the bomb into the net, and just like that, the Hurricanes were on the board in the series.
Not only did they do their job on the scoreboard, but defensively they’ve been fantastic as well. Brind’Amour had been matching Aho with the Point, Ondrej Palat, and Kucherov line throughout the series, and Lightning head coach Jon Cooper seemed content to continue the matchup. The Hurricanes’ top line has kept the Lightning’s off the scoresheet at even strength thus far in the series. The advanced stats tell an encouraging story as well (if you don’t consider yourself an analytics savant, I find this page extremely helpful in explaining). Relative Corsi (CF% Rel), which is a good tool in comparing a player’s on-ice impact relative to the rest of their team, had Point (-3.72), Palat (-5.74), and Kucherov (-0.08) as negative scores, according to Natural Stat Trick. Meanwhile, Aho’s fantastic 14.29 CF% Rel was the worst score amongst the SAT line, with Svechnikov’s 18.82 mark leading the entire team.
Put another way, in the matchup of top lines, Aho, Teravainen, and Svechnikov on the ice at 5-on-5 means the Hurricanes are substantially better. Obviously, right? But, on the flip side, the negative CF% Rel scores for the Lightning’s top line means the team is getting better results with them off the ice. The SAT line has won the battle by a significant margin. As the Hurricanes continue to try and battle back, this matchup will continue to play a huge role in determining the outcome. The Hurricanes have to be pleased with the results they’ve gotten so far, though, as Aho continues to emerge and prove he can not only keep up with but straight up out-play some of the very best players in the NHL.
True stars are born in the postseason. Connor McDavid’s points or Auston Matthews’ goal totals are mesmerizing, and few players are more enjoyable to watch than those two. However, how many of those numbers do you think they’d trade for some postseason success? My guess, just about all of them. Aho has shown up in a big way throughout the postseason, and now has scored more goals than anyone not named Nathan MacKinnon. Every time this team looks down and out, he seems to come through. That kind of fire, that kind of clutch-ness, it’s unteachable; Aho’s competitive nature I alluded to after Game 6 of round 1 has come through and kept the Hurricanes’ hopes alive.
Your best players have to be your best players, and, with so many heavily relied-upon secondary scorers on the shelf, the Hurricanes will rely on the SAT trio as much as ever. These guys certainly have the mindset and skillset to be up to the task. If Svechnikov can continue to show signs of life, and Teravainen and Aho continue to soar alongside him, the Hurricanes can absolutely win this series.
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As mentioned earlier, they still have a tremendous hill to climb for the Hurricanes. However, this game could do a lot for their mentality moving forward. They’re in the win column now, proven they can beat Vasilevskiy, and have shown for long stretches that they can outplay the defending Stanley Cup champion from goal line to goal line. If the Hurricanes can get Niederreiter or Trocheck – or, preferably, both – back, they definitely will have the firepower to compete not just in the series but for the Stanley Cup.
And let’s take a minute to simply appreciate how good these three games have been. Tremendous goaltending, brilliant displays of skill, beautiful passing plays and physicality, the series has had it all. It is really a shame this is a second-round matchup because, in my personal opinion, one of the four best teams in hockey will be going home far too early (actually, two will be, because… Colorado and Vegas.)
As hockey fans, we can only hope we get at least three or four more games of this. The Hurricanes are pushing, doing their part in attempting to provide that longevity, but we’ll see how the champs respond back on home ice this Saturday.
What’s goin’ on folks, my name is Brandon Stanley. I cover the Carolina Hurricanes here at THW. I was born and raised here in Raleigh, NC and have played hockey since about the time I could stand up. I traveled all over North America with the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes organization in my youth days, and the game has simply always been my biggest passion. I also have a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects to game recaps and everything in between. I’m always available to chat anything hockey related, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!