The Carolina Hurricanes returned to play after a 10-day prolonged interruption due to coronavirus issues in the locker room.
Their first opponent on the return was the defending Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning. Not an easy team to shake the rust off against, but the Canes more than held their own, winning a goalie duel in overtime after Martin Necas scored the first and only goal of the game.
Coming into the season, Carolina had plenty to show off on the offensive side, with dazzling young goal scorers like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. But it’s been the defense that propelled the Hurricanes to a 3-1-0 start to the season, suffocating opposing offenses and getting quick scoring chances off the counterattack.
With the offensive talent on the team, the goals will eventually come. But the defensive pressure that has been evident in the first few games of the 2020-21 season may be what thrusts the Hurricanes into the window of contention this season.
Depth Stepping Up
Coming into Thursday’s matchup with the Lightning, Carolina was still shorthanded after the furlough, missing key players Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast, Jaccob Slavin and Warren Foegele. To replace them, the Hurricanes called up taxi squad players Morgan Geekie, Jake Bean, Max McCormick, Steven Lorentz — making his NHL debut — and Sheldon Rempal from the AHL Chicago Wolves.
The team had plenty of excuses to not show up with 10 days off the ice and inexperienced players filling in, but the Hurricanes didn’t miss a beat, shutting down the Lightning in the opening period to just seven shots on goal and holding them to their first shutout since March of 2019.
Big plays were needed from young players, like defenseman Hadyn Fleury’s stick save on Steven Stamkos with a yawning net right in front.
Though it’s still a small sample size, the Hurricanes are currently tied with the Dallas Stars for first in the league in goals against per game (1.50). With more starters returning to the lineup soon, Carolina’s trajectory only seems to be going up if they can build off the momentum from Thursday’s win against an offensive juggernaut like the Lightning.
Even with impressive defensive performances to start the season, good goaltending can make or break a game for the Hurricanes. And that’s not been more evident than when Petr Mrázek is in net.
The 28-year-old goalie has started in three of the team’s four games so far this season, recording two impressive shutouts with a paltry three-goal loss sandwiched in between. Mrázek’s inconsistency has led to some stressful situations for Canes’ fans, but when he is on, he is nearly impossible to break through.
If Mrázek can find a way to remain consistent between the pipes, the sky is the limit with Carolina’s skilled defense in front of him. But if not, head coach Rod Brind’Amour may need to continue running the 1A-1B rotation with him and fellow veteran goalie James Reimer. The 32-year-old goaltender has played in just one game this season but impressed with his limited time, stopping 31 of the 33 shots he faced in Nashville to help lift his team past the Predators on Jan. 18.
So far this season, Carolina allows just 25 shots on goal per game, the fourth-lowest in the league. The Hurricanes would obviously prefer to have a permanent solution at the goaltending position, but if not, the formidable defensive play should be sustainable enough to compensate for the most part.
Last season, Tampa Bay was fifth in the league with 23.2 percent of its power play opportunities ending in goals and entered Thursday’s matchup scoring on 27.3 percent of the chances they were given this year. The Lightning were a known threat on the power play, with Stamkos and forward Brayden Point always a threat to score. The problems for Carolina compounded further on Thursday with many of the Hurricanes’ missing players being reliable penalty killers. Still, miraculously, the Hurricanes held firm.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the win against Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes took three penalties in the low-scoring contest and killed them all. Even with young faces like McCormick and Lorentz thrust into prominent roles on the penalty-killing units, the Canes were stout and rendered just five total shots on the power play chances.
Though the Hurricanes themselves failed to convert on any of the four power play opportunities they were given, the return of reliable goal scorers like Teravainen, hopefully in the coming days, should remedy those concerns. But Carolina’s ability to stay unyielding with a man down against one of the best in the league should give fans plenty of optimism for the rest of the season.
Necas was the hero of the game, but it was the defense that saved the day time and time again on Thursday to beat the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions. The Lightning will get a chance for revenge on Feb. 22. But for now, the Hurricanes will focus on the other Stanley Cup participant as the Stars come to Raleigh, North Carolina, for a two-game series on Saturday and Sunday. Both teams have had games postponed due to COVID-19, but both teams will be fresh as a result. And defense will assuredly be a significant factor again.
Covering the Hurricanes for THW. University of Florida alum. Former sportswriter with The Alligator, ESPN Gainesville and Drafttek.