At times during their first-round series against the Nashville Predators, the Carolina Hurricanes were tough to watch.
The team looked like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in the regular season. They edged the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Discover Central Division race, compiling a stellar 36-12-8 record to earn the top seed in the postseason. The Canes’ exciting young players, like Martin Necas and Alex Nedeljkovic, started to shine, and their talented depth began to fill holes in the lineup. They looked like a complete team.
Yet, the team we’ve seen so far when the lights are shining brightest was unrecognizable at times. They had slow starts, sloppy situational play, including struggles in the face-off circle in key moments, suffered a lack of discipline, and an inability to do the “little things” well, such as clearing the puck at the blue line and getting it deep in the Predators’ zone.
If not for the late heroics and consecutive overtime victories in Games 5 and 6, this would be a very different article. In fairness, the Hurricanes have to be sharper in some of these areas in Round 2 against the Lightning, who are now at full-strength with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov entering the fray. But, we will get to that later; right now, this is a happy occasion, so let’s tip our caps to three players who showed up when it mattered most, showing resiliency in leading the Hurricanes into the…Division Finals? Is that a thing? If not, it should be.
Ah, yes, we are absolutely starting with the whipping boy of the first five games of the series.
Hamilton, a pending unrestricted free agent with many questions surrounding him, has had a less-than-stellar postseason run so far. He had a couple of brutal defensive lapses (see: Game 4 overtime) and looked timid at times. As one of the most feared goal scorers from the blue line, his perceived lack of confidence carried into his offensive game; he was deferring far too much on the power play rather than using his cannon of a shot.
In Game 6, that changed. After the Hurricanes fell behind 3-1, it was Hamilton’s point shot that Sebastian Aho redirected to bring the deficit within one. Later, with precious minutes ticking away and the Hurricanes still searching for the equalizer, he activated again from the blue line off a set faceoff play and tapped in a beautiful backdoor pass behind the outstretched pad of Nashville’s Juuse Saros. Both goals had his footprints all over them.
Hamilton needs to be that dynamic offensive presence. When he’s creating offense and scoring goals, a lot of the defensive inefficiencies and lack of physicality can be overlooked. But it wasn’t just in the offensive zone where his play stepped up. Early in the game, he laid a thunderous hit (a rarity, despite his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame) in the corner, then jumped into the rush for a good scoring chance shortly thereafter. As I posted immediately after on Twitter: that’s a great sign for the Hurricanes. He’s joining the attack, staying involved, and playing his most effective game.
I recognize the importance of the next player we’re going to talk about in ‘making’ Hamilton. Yes, every offensive defenseman will thrive with one of the best defensive defensemen in the league next to him. However, at this point, that argument does a disservice to Hamilton; his achievements, his offensive production, aren’t diminished because of his elite partner.
There’s a lot to be said for comfort and continuity in the game, especially defensively. Players are almost always at their best when they have confidence in what they’re doing and can shut their brains off and just play. This is the reason we often see newly-acquired defensemen, like Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner, and even Hamilton, struggle initially as they try to fit into a new system. So, when Jaccob Slavin was out of the lineup, of course, Hamilton struggled. He was playing with an unfamiliar defensive partner and didn’t have an elite defender to cover him if things went awry when he jumped into the play. Now that he’s back with Slavin, look what happens: He’s comfortable, and he plays to his strengths without fear of things falling apart if he can’t get back to cover.
When Hamilton plays like that, the Hurricanes look like a complete hockey team.
Beyond ‘making’ Hamilton (I say this in jest), Slavin has been a monster since he returned from his lower-body injury.
I’ve made this argument before, but there is no player more important to the Hurricanes’ success than #74. Slavin as the top defender not only plays perfectly off of, and elevates, Hamilton’s game, but also allows good defensemen like Brett Pesce and Skjei to slide down to become the second shutdown pairing. There isn’t a top-four in the league I would take over the one the Hurricanes have.
A funny thing happens when Slavin goes down, though. This elite group doesn’t just take a slight hit, it falls to mediocre, at best. This was on full display in this series.
When Slavin was out, in Games 3 and 4 especially, it was a nightmare showing for the Hurricanes defense. It bled odd-man rushes, nobody could clear the front of the net, and the penalty kill relied far too heavily on Skjei and Pesce. With Slavin back in the fold, all these things stopped, save for a few too many odd-man rushes. Part of this can be attributed to Nashville’s gameplan, though; they clogged the middle, made it extremely difficult for the Hurricanes to create with speed through the middle, waited for Carolina to get impatient and make a mistake, and then took advantage on the counterattack.
Slavin’s elite skating ability makes many odd-man rushes feel pretty even. He’s a rock with as good a defensive stick as I’ve seen since Nicklas Lidstrom.
Few defensemen separate the puck from the body as well as Slavin, even though he’s not exactly a bruiser – though, to be fair, he took the physical play up a notch and was extremely impressive in this series. There’s just nothing this man can’t do on the ice.
In Game 5, Slavin assisted on Necas’ highlight-reel goal that sent the game to overtime. His encore was even better in the series-clincher; it was Slavin who set up the game-tying goal late in the final period, finding a cutting Hamilton back-door with a perfect pass between a Nashville player’s legs. On the winner, it was Slavin again, finding a shooting lane and getting the shot through (something the Canes struggled with in this series; I know Nashville is nursing a thousand bruises from blocking shots right now) for Sebastian Aho to ever-so-slightly deflect it past the glove of Saros for the winner.
Despite surely feeling less than 100%, Slavin has led the team in ice time in each of his first two games back, registering 26:08 in Game 5 and 25:42 In Game 6. There’s little to say about Slavin that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll reiterate: more than any other player on the roster, Slavin makes the biggest difference between the Hurricanes being contenders or pretenders.
There were times when Aho’s play deserved a touch of criticism. He’s the team’s best player, and he was outplayed by Nashville’s top guys a couple of games in the series. However, if there was an MVP from this series, Aho and his series-leading five goals and seven points would have to be the player, right?
After being noticeably dangerous and firing seven shots on goal, despite not finding the scoresheet in Game 1, Aho scored twice in the 3-0 shutout in Game 2. In a tightly contested Game 3, which the Hurricanes would lose in double overtime, Aho notched another goal along with two helpers – factoring in on all three Carolina goals. Then, in Game 6, Aho showed again he has the clutch gene, scoring the aforementioned goal that got the Canes back into the game, then getting in front of Saros to tip home the game-winner, and series clincher, in overtime.
In the postseason, your top dogs have to be your top dogs – that’s what this post is really all about. Now, I could write another article highlighting a few players who are on the other end of the spectrum, such as Andrei Svechnikov and Vincent Trocheck. However, Aho was dominant enough to make up for their lack of production. Hopefully, the other players were just saving bullets for the next series, where they will undoubtedly be needed if the Hurricanes expect to advance.
Back to the point, and like the two previously highlighted players, Aho’s scoring totals only tell part of the story. He’s done so many little things well, and, despite being on the smaller side for a center, has shown a compete level rarely seen in his career before now. He regularly engaged in the corners with much bigger players, finished every check, and seemed ready to take on a leadership role. He appeared to relish having the “A” on his sweater while Slavin was out, as five of his scoring points came in those three games. It seems unlikely that any of the Hurricanes’ three captains will be moving on anytime soon, though Jordan Martinook is a pending unrestricted free agent. If and when the time comes, Aho is ready to step into the position.
If the young Finnish star continues to play at the level we saw in Round 1, the Hurricanes should feel comfortable facing Tampa Bay’s deadly lineup head-on thanks to their immensely talented and highly competitive number one center.
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The Hurricanes received timely contributions from all over their lineup in the opening round of the 2021 Playoffs, which is a necessity for any team to win a series. However, Slavin, Hamilton, and Aho showed up in the most important spots and played the biggest roles in carrying the team into the second round. Alex Nedeljkovic deserves a mention as well, as the rookie netminder went toe-to-toe with Saros. While his Finnish counterpoint probably won the battle overall and outplayed him slightly, “Ned” did his job and then some with all the high-danger chances he faced. He always seemed to come up with a big save to keep the Hurricanes within striking distance.
I alluded to it earlier, but the Hurricanes will need to take their overall game a step forward in Round 2. Svechnikov and Trocheck have to find their rhythm, and the team must decide on the third pairing with Jake Bean as a cause for concern in a physical playoff series. He may not be ready for this style of play at this stage in his career.
With capacity increasing to 15,000 next week, it’s going to be rowdy at PNC Arena, and the Hurricanes will need that added boost after a tough, physical series, including four consecutive overtimes (and six total extra periods).
Though a bigger test lies ahead, we can dive into that as the weekend rolls on. For now, enjoy it, Canes fans. It was a hard-fought, well-deserved, adversity-overcome victory and the sort of series that can propel the team’s confidence to a level they will need in their quest for the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
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!