Hockey has returned, and the Carolina Hurricanes have hit the ground running, winning 3-0 against a rebuilding Detroit Red Wings for the first of what will be a 56-game schedule for the 2020-21 season.
On the surface, a shutout and three goals seem like a dream start, but the Hurricanes showed some rust after a long break and a short training camp. Let’s take a look at some ongoing storylines to keep an eye on after the season’s first game.
Mrazek Opens the Season
Getting the first start of the season against his former team, Petr Mrázek didn’t see much rubber against the Red Wings but did well to stop all 14 shots he faced on Thursday night for the 22nd shutout of his career.
Preseason questions arose as to who would take the reigns in between the pipes after the Hurricanes opted to stay the course with the 1A-1B tandem of Mrázek and fellow goaltender James Reimer that they rode with last season. But with both contracts expiring, 2020-21 will act as an evaluation season as to who to keep, and Mrázek has made an early case as to why it should be him.
Most expect the duo to continue splitting time this season, but Mrazek opening a season with not many games but full of expectations may show that he is the one that head coach Rod Brind’Amour trusts in big moments as of right now.
A 3-0 win is something the Hurricanes will gladly take, but on 43 shots, finishing is an area in definite need of improvement.
The first goal came early from Carolina’s top line with a great feed from Sebastian Aho to Nino Niederreiter, and the Hurricanes looked like they were going to open the flood gates. However, a scoring drought for almost the rest of the game kept it much closer than it likely should have been. Fourth-liner Ryan Dzingel eventually broke the 1-0 standstill with a powerplay goal against the stubborn Thomas Greiss with 2:34 left, followed quickly by an Andrei Svechnikov empty netter to put the game out of reach.
There’s no doubt that Carolina dominated for much of Thursday’s contest, but the scoring drought resulted from a lack of finishing from depth lines as the game progressed. Detroit keyed-in on Carolina’s top line after the early onslaught, and the rest of the lineup struggled to add to the lead as a result. Dzingel’s late goal allowed fans to breathe a sigh of relief but also pointed out a flaw in the Canes’ offensive attack.
While finishing in the offensive zone was an issue, the defensive effort from all lines was suffocating, allowing just 14 shots on goal and killing off both of the Red Wings’ power plays with relative ease.
Good energy from veterans like Jesper Fast was key in the shutout win. The 29-year-old winger, who the Canes acquired this past offseason, did well to pressure Detroit’s talented wingers in Carolina’s defensive zone. Even when the defense broke down, highlight plays like Teuvo Teräväinen’s diving stick poke in the slot made it hard for Detroit to put together any real scoring chances. Defensive performances like Thursday’s will make the Hurricanes a tough team to score on, and if they can take better advantage of their shot selection, they could be a formidable team to stop.
Youth Contributes Well
The Hurricanes enter the 2020-21 season with one of the younger rosters in the league, with their youngest player — Svechnikov — turning just 21 years old in March. The team’s youthfulness breeds potential in the eyes of Carolina fans, but it also provides a significant obstacle for a team looking to compete in the present. General manager Don Waddell and the front office have assembled a talented roster, but Brind’Amour has added pressure to compete even with so many young players on his team.
However, those concerns have slowly dissipated as the young players showed time and again they were up to the task last season and did again in the first game of 2020-21. Though some have experienced extended playing time already, it’s still encouraging to see young players like Martin Nečas contribute with almost 16 minutes of ice time — nearly two minutes more than his average ice time last season — and an assist on Dzingel’s powerplay goal near the end of the game.
24-year-old defenseman Haydn Fleury also did well at 5-on-5 on the third pairing with Jake Gardiner and helped on the penalty kill in crucial points of the game.
Of course, Svechnikov’s performance was also expectantly impressive. The 20-year-old winger entered the game with high expectations and met them on the second line with Nečas and the captain Jordan Staal. Svechnikov contributed a lot on the boards and kept the puck in the offensive zone before eventually being paid off with his empty netter to end the game.
Young players contributing will be crucial in this unique season, and a team effort will be needed nightly as the season progresses. The Hurricanes will be taking on seven other division opponents a total of eight times each. Familiarity will become a major factor as the playoffs get closer, and being able to attack teams in different ways may be the difference-maker.
Carolina will stay in Detroit for another game on Saturday before moving on to Nashville next week to take on the Predators.