The Carolina Hurricanes played in their first postseason game in a decade Thursday night. They faced off against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. They put forth a gallant effort but shot themselves in the foot a couple of times and served the game to the defending champs.
Playoff hockey has no peer in sports. Regular season hockey does not even compare. With a roster of at least 10 players who had never played in an NHL playoff game before, Thursday night became a lesson in intensity for the Hurricanes. It is a stage where little mistakes have thin margins, as they can turn into points for the opposition.
Mrázek Misses Bäckström’s Blast
The first two of the Capitals’ three first-period goals illustrate just how serious little mistakes can become in a playoff hockey game. First, Petr Mrázek whiffed on a shot. Criticizing a goaltender, especially one who has been as hot as Mrázek in recent weeks, is normally not fair game. But, this instance is an exception.
Nicklas Bäckström got loose and was coming toward the Hurricanes’ zone. Jaccob Slavin was marking him but Bäckström was able to launch from way out and Mrázek simply was late with his glove hand and the result was Capitals 1, Hurricanes 0.
The reason this miss by Mrázek stands out is that there was nothing to obscure his vision, no players mixing it up in his line of sight. Yes, goalies are human and sometimes make mistakes. But, a big whiff like Mrázek had to put the Caps up 1-0 is much more glaring in Game 1 than in a game in mid-November.
Mrázek has proven he can carry the Hurricanes, and it can be argued that he played okay the rest of the way. But, if the Hurricanes are going to be more than a nuisance to the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals, both Mrázek and Curtis McElhinney will have to stop those shots.
Pesce Please Pay Attention
The second mistake that cost the Hurricanes dearly was made by Brett Pesce and the penalty killers. The Capitals were to Mrázek’s left and Bäckström saw a completely unguarded goalmouth. He slid into position and Evgeny Kuznetsov laced the puck to him and Bäckström tapped it in for his second goal of the first period and the score was 2-0 Capitals.
Pesce might not shoulder the entirety of this mistake in positioning by himself. But, he is an outstanding defenceman who has been recognized as elite, and should never have let Bäckström skate up to the net and have unfettered access to receive the pass from Kuznetsov and score his second.
Ovechkin Posts Up Again
There is not a soul who watches the NHL who does not know where Alexander Ovechkin is going to be when the Capitals are on the power play. He posts up to the right of the opposing goaltender and waits. Again on a power play, Ovechkin was posted up in his usual spot and the puck got loose in front of the goal. He hunted it down and sent the puck blazing by Mrázek in the five-hole.
This might not necessarily have been any one player on the Hurricanes’ fault. After all, Ovechkin is one of the best scorers in the world, and he is extremely tough to stop. That being said, if it is known what he is going to be trying to do and where he is going to be trying to do it from, there might be something the ‘Canes can do to disrupt his game. That is an area that head coach Rod Brind’Amour very likely will address.
Brind’Amour Liked the First Period
After the game, Brind’Amour said, “I liked our first period. It’s just unfortunate we get down three.” He also acknowledged that Mrázek kept the Hurricanes in the game in the third period with some big saves. “…certainly not his fault on any of the goals.”
There is room for disagreement with that statement in that the first goal of the game was one that Mrázek was simply late on with his glove hand. Mrázek is a beast, and an incredible part of the Hurricanes’ success in 2019 thus far. But, there is no room for error in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Hockey Writers had this recap after the game: “…Mrázek rebounded from allowing a soft opening goal to Backstrom by stopping Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin on breakaways and turned aside Brett Connolly and Lars Eller on rapid-fire chances early in the third before Svechnikov got the Hurricanes on the board. Mrazek finished with 14 saves”.
Again, Mrázek played well. Pesce played well. But, it is arguable that for two milliseconds each, there were mistakes made that weighed heavily on the outcome of the game. That’s why they play the games.
Andrei Svechnikov is Amazing
Andrei Svechnikov tried to pull the game out for the Hurricanes in the third period. He scored two goals to pull his team within one at 3-2. But in the end, he got no help as the Hurricanes’ power play was powerless. Team captain Justin Williams was candid after the game:
The power play was crap and the penalty kill was crap also,” Williams said. “I mean, listen, they’re going to get opportunities, obviously, but there’s a couple of little things we looked at to do the best we can to nullify that and a
coupleof things we looked at on the power play as well to be more impactful.
Svechnikov did his best. Apparently, he is not overwhelmed with the nerves that sometimes hit young players making their first postseason appearance. But it will take more than the “Svech” alone to pull the series even and for the Hurricanes to have a chance at advancing.
Brind’Amour said one thing that is definitely bankable, “We’ll be back.” If there is anything on this team that he and Williams have been able to engrave is the fuel to not give up. Losing Game 1 was a heartbreaker for sure for the Hurricanes and their fans. But, the entire season has been on in which they have come back time and again. Don’t count these Hurricanes out.
Mark lives in the Raleigh, NC area and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.