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How Game 3 will be won: Keys for Hurricanes, Devils

The Carolina Hurricanes dominated the New Jersey Devils to earn a 2-0 lead in their series in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Based on the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Devils obviously have them right where they want them.

The Devils lost the first two games against the New York Rangers and rallied to win their series in seven games. If they’re going to do it again, there needs to be several reversals of fortune after Games 1 and 2.

“We’ve got to flush it and move on,” Devils winger Miles Wood said. “We’ve been here before, especially in the first round against a great team, and we came back and won. So they haven’t seen our best yet.”

For the Hurricanes, the series could be theirs to close out if they continue to excel in a few areas.

Here are the keys to Game 3. Advanced stats are courtesy of Stathletes.


How the Devils can rally

Reclaim the hustle

To say Nico Hischier was unsatisfied with his team’s effort in the first two games against Carolina would be an understatement.

“We should be really pissed off right now,” said the Devils captain after Game 2.

What frustrated him most? That a team that dug in and grinded out a series win against their archrivals didn’t have a fragment of that hustle, especially compared to the Hurricanes.

“It’s frustrating for sure. We’ve got to battle harder. I think we have lots of skill here, but skill doesn’t mean anything in the playoffs,” Hischier said.

It was no secret that the Devils were in for a different fight against the Hurricanes than they had against the Rangers. They went from being the hunter, shutting down New York’s offensive stars, to the hunted, as the Hurricanes did the same to them.

It takes a different kind of energy to fight through that.

“Right now, at 5-on-5, they’re the better team,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve got to win more battles. We have to be more determined. The way we change this series is improve our 5-on-5 play, improve some of the execution with the puck.”

Goaltending boost

Based on all the available evidence from Games 1 and 2, as well as Saturday’s practice, it should be veteran Vitek Vanecek getting the start for Game 3 over rookie Akira Schmid. Which is some wacky playoff symmetry, considering that Schmid replaced Vanecek in Game 3 against the Rangers, after the Devils lost two games by a combined score of 10-2 at home.

This time, the Devils are expected to make a goalie change after getting outscored 11-2 on the road.

The losses in Raleigh weren’t on Schmid … but he also didn’t do enough to mitigate the damage. He wasn’t that sharp in Game 2, including a chaotic sequence at the end of the second period that led to the Hurricanes’ fourth goal by Martin Necas.

“You can’t play like we did at the end of the second period where you just hand them opportunities,” Ruff said.

Vanecek has seen time in both games against Carolina. He was 2-1-0 against them in the regular season, with a .918 save percentage and a 2.25 goals-against average — including a shutout on March 12 at home.

Full marks to Schmid, whose poise helped the Devils to their first playoff series win since 2012. But he should pass the baton in Game 3 back to Vanecek, who will try to orchestrate his own rally.

Find confidence offensively

Ruff said his team “lost its patience” in the second period of Game 2, leading to four Carolina goals that basically sealed its fate.

“I thought when we started the game really good, as the game went on, we got frustrated. We made some poor decisions with the puck. We gave the puck away,” he said.

Nothing is coming easy for the Devils offensively. They’ve been unable to use their speed to create chances. The chances they do create haven’t been clean looks: 66% of the shot attempts they’ve had against Carolina have been through traffic, compared to 55% against the Rangers.

Ruff is expected to shake up his lines for Game 3. Toward the end of Game 2, Jack Hughes and Ondrej Palat played with Timo Meier — still seeking his first point of the playoffs. At practice on Saturday, Dawson Mercer drew in for Palat, who skated with Hischier and Jesper Bratt, who has one point in his past five games.

Getting their defensemen more involved in the attack is essential. To that end, rookie Luke Hughes is replacing the injured Ryan Graves. It’s the 19-year-old’s third NHL game, but he has the kind of puck-moving creativity the team really needs right now.

They have to do something to recapture their swagger offensively, or else this is going to be a short series.


How the Hurricanes can finish the Devils

Keep defensive zone Devil-free

One reason the Devils’ best players have been unable to get rolling in the offensive zone is because they’ve spent such little time there.

In Games 3 through 7 against the Rangers, the Devils averaged 25:01 of offensive zone time per game. In the first two games against the Hurricanes, that’s dropped to 21:33. The Rangers would allow the Devils to gain speed through the neutral zone to set up chances in the attacking zone. Against Carolina, the neutral zone has become the biggest swamp the Devils have experienced since leaving the Meadowlands. New Jersey is spending 12:14 on average in the first two games in the neutral zone; against the Rangers from Games 3 through 7, they spent 11:07 there.

When they do gain the attacking zone, the Hurricanes are doing a great job of making chances one and done. There are opportunities: 25% of the Devils’ 57 shot attempts on average create rebounds. But New Jersey only had three shots off of rebounds in Game 1 and two of them in Game 2.

Carolina knows that the more time it makes the Devils spend defending, the less time its offensive stars have to shine in the other zone.

“If you can get in first on the forecheck and just get keep pucks in there, we can try and ground them down,” said Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook. “We know how skilled this team is. If we’re one and done and they’re getting out clean, then you’re chasing them on the way back. It’s a key for us to play down there as much as we can.”

Ironically, the Devils’ best offensive players are hearing the same criticisms that the Rangers’ stars heard in the previous round. In both cases, it inevitably tracks back to the exemplary job their opponents are doing defensively.

Continue special team dominance

The Hurricanes only have one power-play goal in the first two games of the series, but it was a critical one: Jesperi Kotkaniemi opened the scoring in the second period of Game 2, giving the Hurricanes a lead they would never surrender. Sometimes, it’s not how many you score but when you score them. Or, in the Devils’ case, when you don’t.

The Hurricanes were the second-best penalty-killing team in the regular season (84.4%), and the Devils knew that better than anyone. The power play was 0-for-13 against Carolina with four short-handed goals against. Already in this series, their penalty kill is 5-for-5. The Devils had early first-period power plays in both games, came up empty and were unable to build any momentum. That was especially true in Game 2, when they had a 5-on-3 power play and couldn’t convert.

The Devils are undoubtedly going to switch up tactics and personnel — Luke Hughes was seeing time with the first unit in practice — and associate coach Andrew Brunette is a crafty power-play architect. Given how they’ve struggled at 5-on-5, it’s imperative for the Hurricanes to continue giving them nothing with a man advantage.

Let Freddie do the rest

Quietly, Frederik Andersen is becoming one of the stories of the playoffs. He returned to the lineup in Game 6 against the Islanders, after an illness and a minor injury. Andersen has allowed only one goal in each of his three postseason games, looking very steady between the pipes for Carolina.

“Freddie was there all night. There was never really a time when he wasn’t having to make some saves. That was a difference, for sure,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Game 2.

As the Devils sort out their goaltending, the Hurricanes are playing well in front of Andersen and he’s doing the rest. Stability is vital in a playoff series. So far, the Hurricanes look practically unbothered by their opponents.

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