Hurricanes Rely on Defensive Depth & Nedeljkovic in Game 2 Shutout

Conclusions drawn from two games are hollow more often than not, but the Carolina Hurricanes got off to about as good a start as one could hope for in their first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators.

Game 1 was probably most concerning from a Hurricanes perspective. They had been mostly going through the motions while playing out the stretch and resting players the last few games. Meanwhile, Nashville had been fighting for their season’s life, already in playoff mode for weeks to finish out. The Hurricanes didn’t have the crispest start but were able to bounce back and control the second half of the game to take Game 1.

For Game 2, the Hurricanes looked to build on what they started. After a fast start, a parade to the penalty box made for a messy game with little flow. It was not particularly pretty hockey, but in the postseason, the end result is all that matters. Largely thanks to a 32-save shutout from rookie goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and heroics from the Jaccob Slavin-less defense, the Hurricanes emerged victorious by a score of 3-0.

To use as a bit of a guide for this recap, we’ll go back through some of the questions from my series preview post. While it’s too early to say whether or not the team truly answered any of these questions, we’ll consider these early impressions; a progress report of sorts.

The Slavin-Less Defense

Not that we need to repeat it, but Slavin is simply ridiculous. His skating, hockey IQ, ability to separate player and puck, and endurance are all nothing short of elite. In his own end, he very well may be the best defenseman in the NHL. Having him out of the lineup is a huge hole, one that no defenseman on the Hurricanes could even remotely expect to fill alone. So, they employed the good ol’ by-committee approach, and the six guys on the blue line deserve a ton of the credit for this win.

The Hurricanes’ (subjective) lack of discipline, combined with a (definitive) tough night for the officials, led to a taxing, penalty kill-filled game. The team was shorthanded seven times, as opposed to just three power play opportunities, but also happened to score the only power play goal of the night thanks to a beautiful cross-seam pass from Andrei Svechnikov to Sebastian Aho. The biggest reason for the penalty-killing clinic (at least as far as skaters go, anyway) was a ridiculous performance on the blue line.

Brady Skjei Carolina Hurricanes
Brady Skjei, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brady Skjei saw the largest increase in ice time (TOI) in Game 1; when Slavin was in the lineup, Skjei played a modest 18:45. He surpassed that by a significant margin in Game 2, finishing with a postseason single-game career-high of 27:43 (for a regulation game). He was on the ice for 9:37 of shorthanded time alone. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, played 28:01, of which 9:18 were shorthanded (TOI via Natural Stat Trick). That’s two defensemen playing nearly half the game alone and nearly half a period of 4-on-5 hockey. One other nugget, the next highest defenseman for shorthanded TOI was Jani Hakanpää, at 3:43.

That’s impressive in itself, considering the battle level and desperation needed on the penalty kill. But also consider the Hurricanes’ strategy on the PK; they play an extremely aggressive style while down a man, pressuring the puck relentlessly and then having to sprint back into position after the puck is moved side-to-side. It’s hard to put into words just how much compete, stamina, and heart it took by these guys to get the job done, and it probably won’t get the attention it deserves.

Down the line, Hakanpää was notably physical throughout the game. He had one shift where he was chasing Nashville’s quick, diminutive forward Eeli Tolvanen behind the net and laid at least three consecutive crunching hits. Plays like that wear the opposition down and will only become more valuable as the playoffs roll along. Hakanpää looks comfortable within the Hurricanes’ system and has played well the first two games.

Dougie Hamilton has been a tad quiet in the offensive zone to begin this series. At least in terms of point totals, anyway, as he has been solid moving the puck and quarterbacking the top power play unit. His defensive play deserves a lot of praise, though, as he has been key in breaking up rushes and quickly transitioning the puck up the ice. Hamilton was incredible defensively before his broken leg last season, then struggled for long stretches upon his return in 2020-21. Seeing him gapping up nicely and playing the body a bit has been a welcome sight for the Canes.

Jake Bean had one bad turnover in the second period where he over-handled the puck and turned an easy breakout into a Nashville rush. Otherwise, he had a steady, solid game. His skating and hockey IQ allow him to be positionally sound, and he has an active stick that takes away lanes well. Both of these skills were on display during a Nashville 3-on-1, where Bean dove and extended his stick to deflect the pass into the neutral zone. With Slavin out of the lineup, Bean did his best impression in that instance. He’s also looked quite good moving the puck on the second power play unit, which has been more dangerous lately with the trio of Bean, Teuvo Teravainen, and Martin Necas forming the umbrella atop the zone. That unit has legitimate upside, and I expect to score some important goals at some point in the postseason.

Jake Bean Carolina Hurricanes
Jake Bean, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jake Gardiner drew into the lineup, and after getting caught flat-footed and beat to the outside early on, had a quiet (in a good way) game. Gardiner seems to either be a trainwreck defensively, letting mistakes compound into more mistakes and shaky play, or very good, making a steady diet of crafty, quintessential-veteran-defenseman plays on the breakout and defensively, which he did on Wednesday night. After that early mistake where he was really on his heels, I was nervous the former would take place; credit to him for shaking it off, getting his legs under him, and providing the Hurricanes with some important minutes.

It was necessary to talk about all six defensemen because they all made a legitimate, positive impact, and it truly was a collective effort from the back end. The defense can’t survive for an extended period with this game plan, with Pesce and Skjei playing nearly half the game and just generally being without their leader in Slavin. They need him back soon, but getting this win without him, and in this dominant fashion, was notably impressive.

Alex Nedeljkovic; Enough Said

What more can be said about the Parma, Ohio native?

Nedeljkovic had a solid NHL playoff debut in Game 1, stopping 22 of 24 shots. Neither goal allowed was his fault, per se, but he got a tad overzealous on the first to allow Filip Forsberg to beat him five-hole and gave up a couple of juicy rebounds early on. He got stronger as the game went on and made some great saves in the third period while the Hurricanes took control.

Wednesday night, “Ned” was cool, calm, and an absolute brick wall.

It was up in the air who the starter would be for the Hurricanes between the pipes in the playoffs. I mentioned in the preview that you truly couldn’t go wrong either way; Petr Mrazek has been the “the guy” the last two postseasons, and Nedeljkovic has been sensational all season long.

A rotation of some sort is still possible at some point, especially if Nedeljkovic struggles at any point. The physical and mental grind of the postseason is tough on all 20 guys, and a reset or a night off is still possible, especially because it theoretically should help keep Mrazek sharp.

But after stopping 52 of 54 in the first two games of the series, I think it’s safe to say head coach Rod Brind’Amour made the right decision going with the kid. For now, it looks to be Nedeljkovic’s net.

Hurricanes Setting the Physical Tone

Before the series, one question was how much of a physical edge Nashville would have. When previewing the lineups, it was obvious there was a talent disparity; head coach John Hynes apparently agreed, as his Game 1 lineup featured Ben Harpur over Matt Benning and Rocco Grimaldi and Tolvanen as healthy scratches. The idea is understandable, but scratching two of their top-five goal scorers was a tad questionable.

Even with all that, it was the Hurricanes who came out the aggressor (before the whistle stopped play, anyway). Despite holding a possession edge, Carolina out-hit the Predators 56-49 in Game 1, in which they also held a 38-24 shot advantage. They then held an even larger advantage in the hits department at 52-39 in Game 2, when the possession metrics were much closer.

Jani Hakanpaa Carolina Hurricanes
Jani Hakanpaa, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Hurricanes have, as a whole, made a point to finish every hit and match the Predators’ intensity. There is a lot of grit in the Predators’ lineup, but the Hurricanes have shown a significant amount of growth in the physical area of the game from the last couple of postseasons. Necas got pushed around and effectively eliminated last season, so seeing him mix things up with series villain Erik Haula has been a welcome sight. Aho really seemed to engage physically and has laid multiple good, hard hits himself. And, of course, the players the Hurricanes rely on for physicality like Hakanpää, Nino Niederreiter, Brock McGinn, Jordan Staal, and Jordan Martinook have all done their jobs.

Another note in the preview was that the fourth lines could have a significant impact on this series, and this has come true. But it has been the Hurricanes’ fourth line, not the Predators unit of Colton Sissons, Yakov Trenin, and Tanner Jeannot, who has won the battle. Steven Lorentz, in particular, has been sensational through two games, using his speed and reach to constantly harass puck carriers, strip pucks defensively, and get in on the forecheck. After the Predators struck first in Game 1, almost immediately afterward, it was Lorentz who made a play and brought the Hurricanes right back.

The young center used his speed to create a scoring chance, stuck with the play while showcasing his puck retrieval skill after the rebound skittered to the corner, and got it to Pesce for a point shot that Teravainen deflected in to immediately tie it. It looks like a big play in the series with how things have since unfolded, quickly squelching any momentum potentially heading to Nashville. He does all the little things right, and Brind’Amour is rewarding him for it with not only a lineup spot but trust in big spots and late in games.

Seeing how the Predators respond in Game 3, back on their home ice, will be telling. They failed to overpower the Hurricanes as they had hoped, and even though they goaded the Hurricanes into a parade to the penalty box, they were unable to generate anything against the stingy Hurricanes’ penalty kill. This series certainly isn’t over, but if the Hurricanes come out and set a physical tone again, which will then allow them to wear the Predators down and take over with skill, Nashville will be in big trouble. And, incidentally, if Lorentz and the fourth line can continue to eliminate the physical edge from the Predators’ depth players, the Canes will be in great shape to do just that.

Stars Playing Like Stars

Finally, your best players must be your best players. The top-six for the Hurricanes has been extremely impressive through two games and looks to be back to firing on all cylinders in postseason hockey.

We’ll start with Vincent Trocheck, who went extremely cold to end the regular season. And to be fair, he’s still snakebitten; he’s had at least three Grade-A opportunities that Nashville’s Juuse Saros has turned aside, including this beautiful 2-on-1 shorthanded rush with Pesce in Game 2 that Saros made a phenomenal sliding save on:

However, he’s been absolutely buzzing and using his speed and hands to cause all sorts of problems in the Nashville zone. If he keeps going like this, the goals will come. It’s also notable how good the other areas of his game have continued to be, though. Brind’Amour uses him frequently on defensive zone draws, as, along with Staal, he is one of the Hurricanes’ most trusted players in all zones. He kills penalties, creates havoc offensively, and, again, the chances are there. It’s huge for the Hurricanes to have him back at this level, even though he isn’t scoring at a torrid pace like he did a majority of the regular season again.

Aho has looked like a man on a mission so far. His speed and skill are always a problem for every defenseman in the league. When he’s on, he’s the best player on the ice; he has been so far in this series. After registering seven shots on goal in Game 1, Aho scored twice, had another five shots, and was credited with five hits as well in Game 2. With Slavin out, Aho was given an “A” on his sweater and certainly played as a captain should. He led the way in all facets of the game; penalty killing, offensive zone playmaking, and scoring timely goals. By the way, it’s not a coincidence that his close friend and linemate Teravainen is back, and he doesn’t look like a guy who missed 3/4 of the season whatsoever. The chemistry those two (as well as the next guy) share on the ice is beautiful to watch. Also, there’s this:

As for Aho’s other linemate, Svechnikov was simply made for playoff hockey. We all know about the skill, of course, but it’s the physicality and ability to engage with discipline while staying — and maybe even rising to a higher gear — within his game that makes him so special (well, one of the things, I should say). Everyone remembers the Ovechkin fight, but Svechnikov has proven again and again that he will not back down from anyone. Getting knocked out in a postseason game didn’t scare him off; it only made him seem more excited to get in on the action.

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Just about every post-whistle scrum, Svechnikov seems to be in the middle of. He seems to always have something to say, gets under the opposition’s skin, and skates away with a grin. He talks a big game, but he certainly backs it up. He has a goal and an assist, but also nine shots on goal and seven hits in the series. He’s just so much fun to watch when his motor is running, a big, strong blur of speed and slick hands. Seeing that top line clicking suggests big things ahead for the Hurricanes.

With the stars clicking, the depth playing monstrous roles, and Nedeljkovic on fire, the Hurricanes got off to as great a start and now need to win just two of the next five games. We’ll see how the Slavin injury situation plays out, but the rumblings are that it isn’t serious, and he should be back within the next few games.

The Hurricanes now head to Nashville for Games 3 and 4, where the Nashville crowd will try to pull their team back into this series. If the Hurricanes win one of the two, it will spell big trouble; it’s going to be really tough for the Predators to win three straight.