If the Carolina Hurricanes had sat down before the series began to try and write the perfect script for the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the first two games would have looked pretty much exactly what has unfolded at PNC Arena the last few days. In every phase of the game, almost every minute detail, the advantage has been in their corner as they protected home ice in particularly impressive fashion. The opposing New Jersey Devils have looked shellshocked by the time the puck dropped on the third period of each of the two games played, and thus far they have had no answers for Rod Brind’Amour’s tenacious group.
The Hurricanes have created a blueprint for how to control the tempo and shut down a high-flying offense early on in this series. They have leaned heavily into their strengths, their weaknesses basically have seemed to fade away, and some of the big question marks that have gotten them beat in postseasons past are beginning to seem like little more than valuable learning experiences.
Today we’ll jump into a few of those key areas, and break down the biggest reasons the Hurricanes are just two wins away from a return to the Eastern Conference Final.
Andersen Catching Fire at the Right Time
When Frederik Andersen was enjoying a Vezina-calibre first season with the Hurricanes in 2021-22, it was often referenced how his cool, calm, and collected demeanor in the net seemed like a perfect fit for a team that often played like the personification of a Red Bull energy drink. The team’s aggressiveness has been known to leave their goaltenders out to dry on occasion, but on the flip side, their dominating puck possession game also means their goalies go through significant stretches where they don’t see any rubber at all. For many goaltenders, not feeling the puck can disengage them from the game. Then when a good chance or two does pop up, they can be a little out of the flow and let in a softie.
Despite more struggles than he would have liked in the 2022-23 season, when he’s on his game, this lack of engagement has rarely seemed to be an issue for Andersen. He almost always looks like the same, even-keeled goaltender. Even when the Devils went 25 minutes and took just one shot on goal in Game 1 (that was on a dump from center ice, by the way), Andersen was superb in their 5-1 win. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum in Game 2, the Devils came out flying, made an early push, had a brief 5-on-3, and the veteran netminder came up with numerous big saves to allow the Hurricanes to find their legs and take over. He’s been exactly what the Hurricanes have needed so far, and much like Antti Raanta in the first round, has staked his claim for the net for the time being.
Incidentally, it’s not even really fair to say Raanta lost his job, but rather that Andersen simply snatched it away. These last three games are an example of the whole reason the big Dane was brought in, and the team’s ceiling was only going to be reached with Andersen between the pipes, playing to his potential. Since taking over in Game 6, Andersen has stopped 33 of 34 to eliminate the New York Islanders, 17 of 18 in the series opener against the Devils, and turned aside 28 of 29 in Friday’s Game 2. Add it all up and that’s a save percentage (SV%) of .963, and a goals-against average (GAA) of 0.97. That’ll work.
Either way, the Hurricanes should have the utmost confidence that they can turn to either goalie moving forward. The playoffs are all about who gets hot at the right time, and right now, it’s definitely Andersen. However, if things were to change, it’s a heck of a luxury to have another guy that has won you playoff series in the past ready to go (although he did miss backing up in Game 2 with a reported minor, lingering injury).
High volume or low, his game hasn’t wavered, and he’s made big saves at key moments time and again. If the Hurricanes keep advancing, Brind’Amour’s decision to go to him — that many questioned at the time, mind you — will be a key turning point to look back upon.
Kotkaniemi Kicks Offense Into Gear with Big Power-Play Goal
The 2022-23 season was a bit of a coming out party for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He set career highs in every offensive category (18 goals, 25 assists, 43 points) while developing into one of the best two-way centers in hockey. It’s easy to forget the former third-overall pick is only 22 years old, and his development and performance down the stretch was a huge reason the Hurricanes were able to hold off the Devils and win the Metropolitan Division.
Despite playing well, he had a tough first round against the New York Islanders offensively, with just one assist in the six games. Still, before the second round started, Kotkaniemi was an obvious player to look to when considering who could step up to help the Hurricanes match the Devils’ high-flying offense.
Through two games of the series, so far, so good — very, very good. He scored a big insurance marker for his first of the postseason in Game 1, then was probably the best player on the ice on either team in Game 2. He started his night with a bang, laying a thunderous hit on Devils captain Nico Hischier early on to set the tone, then opened the scoring early in the second period with a beautiful, high-blocker snipe on Devils starting goalie Akira Schmid. He wasn’t done there, though, following it up just 2:23 later with another pretty finish, winning a battle at the front of the net and elevating over Schmid’s shoulder from in tight to extend the lead (with what would eventually be the game-winning goal).
The Hurricanes obviously poured it on in what ultimately became a 6-1 final score, but the Finnish center was the one who really got them going. Plus, the fact that Kotkaniemi’s first goal of Game 2 came on the power play makes it even more satisfying from the Hurricanes’ perspective; one of the team’s biggest issues in the 2022 Playoffs was not just their lack of finishing, but their lack of taking advantage of key opportunities. After killing two early penalties, including the aforementioned 5-on-3, the Hurricanes’ power play to begin the second period felt like a big moment. They had begun to swing momentum after those air-tight penalty kills to close out the first, but so often special teams can swing that momentum right back into one team’s corner or the other’s. Who knows what kind of lift the ever-dangerous Devils could have gotten had Kotkaniemi not converted on that chance?
The offense has continued to come from all over the lineup through the team’s first eight playoff games, but regardless, in the playoffs, a team’s stars must step up and be their stars. With so many missing pieces, the Hurricanes need Kotkaniemi to be one of those top players. With his performance, the bottom six showing up offensively, Seth Jarvis continuing to thrive, Sebastian Aho assisting on two goals to run his point streak to five games, and Martin Necas finding the twine late (which could be massive for Carolina moving forward if he can build off it), things are clicking in the right ways at the right time for this team.
Hurricanes Dominate Pace, Eliminate Devils’ Speed
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the way the Hurricanes have utterly dominated the pace of play through two games in this series. All the talk heading into the matchup was how the defense would deal with with superstar Jack Hughes, Hurricanes deadline target/Devils deadline acquisition Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and the rest of the explosive New Jersey offense. So far, they’ve essentially eliminated it.
It all starts with their absolute insatiate forechecking that hasn’t allowed the Devils to get anything going out of their own end. Carolina has simply looked like the hungrier team for long stretches, and has really gone to work on Dougie Hamilton and the rest of the Devils defense. Despite having some sound, puck-moving defensemen, they haven’t been afforded any time or space in this series coming out of their defensive zone. The Hurricanes have caused a ton of issues coming out of their own end, repeatedly hemming them in and wearing them down as a result. They’ve won battle after battle, and their puck support and attention to detail has caused massive problems.
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Jack Drury deserves a shout here, after the rookie forward returned in Game 2 and played an imperative part in their vicious forecheck, twice winning battles in the offensive zone with good, old fashioned hard work that immediately turned into goals. This is the style the Hurricanes have built their team identity on; they play north-south, they want to forecheck teams to oblivion, and they have the heavy personnel — even without their top power forwards in Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty — to make things extremely difficult on their opponents. These things pay off in a long series, especially against a team that isn’t built that same way, and doesn’t have the same experience the Hurricanes have gotten over the last four years in these tough, grinding playoff series.
After laying the wood with a few huge hits in the first period, the Hurricanes simply won the physical battle and out-willed the Devils for the final 40 minutes. Beyond Drury, players like Stefan Noesen, Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast, Jarvis, and, of course, Jordan Staal have all been massive in the dirty areas, and it’s allowed the Hurricanes to thrive on their puck possession and cycle game.
When the Devils have gotten out of their own end, the Hurricanes have still done a masterful job of choking-off the transition attack the Devils have thrived on all year through the neutral zone. The Carolina blue line does as good a job as any team in the league at stepping up at their own blue line, and when the Devils have gotten into the zone, that aggressiveness pinching generally slows the oncoming attack considerably, if nothing else. It often has left the Devils moving laterally instead of towards the net, and cuts off timing the puck carrier may have with his wingers.
Then, with the elite skating ability throughout all three Hurricanes’ defense pairings, plus the dogged, determined backchecking of its forwards, the recovery and support has been there almost instantly on the rare occasions the Devils do get in somewhat cleanly on the zone entry. The Devils want to speed up and open up the game, but the Hurricanes simply haven’t allowed them to. When Carolina is able to dictate the tempo, turning the game into a tough, grinding matchup, few teams can match them.
Long Way to Go Against Devils Team in Familiar Territory
Now, of course, while the Hurricanes utterly dominated the first two games with an aggregate score of 11-2, style points don’t mean anything. The Devils are in the exact same position they were in their first round series, and even then they lost both their opening games at home against the New York Rangers, only to go to Madison Square Garden and take the next two to even the series. They’ll have confidence and belief in themselves, so the Hurricanes must keep their foot on the pedal and be the ones who instill doubt in their opponents’ heads. Getting a win in one of the two games will be paramount in really putting the Devils on their heels.
There’s something to be said for team buy-in and chemistry, and the Hurricanes have really built that over the last couple years. Their playoff failures in the past have given them valuable film and experience to draw back from. This is one of the areas they had an advantage that doesn’t show up on paper, facing a young, up-and-coming team that hasn’t been through this grind together yet. In most cases it takes a team a few years to really learn what it takes to win this time of year. And this isn’t to say the Devils can’t come back here and take it all the way — they certainly have the talent — but it could be a big reason why they’ve often been unable to climb back into the two games so far when things went downhill. They simply haven’t been able to match the Hurricanes’ intensity for some key, long stretches.
If we’ve learned anything this year, though, it’s that anything can happen. It’s been a truly wild postseason so far, with the defending champs, a record-setting regular season team, and five 100-point regular season teams all failing to make it out of the first round. You could really make a case for any team remaining in the field at this point. So, while there’s a long way to go, the Hurricanes are putting the blueprint in place for how they can keep on neutralizing teams and finding ways to get the job done. It’s simply going to be up to them to continue executing that blueprint, and to see just how far a team many had counted out due to injury can carry on this stellar play.