Islanders & Hurricanes Defenses Highlight Good vs. Elite

Game 1 of the First Round series between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders was a low-scoring defensive battle, something that was anticipated by the fans and experts alike. Both teams entered the series being carried by their defenses and possessing top-five units in the league, and the results showed. Scoring opportunities were rare, and there were only three total goals in the game, two of which were courtesy of a power play.

Related: 4 Takeaways From Islanders 2-1 Game 1 Loss vs Hurricanes

The Hurricanes outplayed the Islanders, especially defensively, resulting in a 2-1 victory on their home ice. The first game specifically showed the gap between the two defensive units and what a good one needs to make a run at the Stanley Cup.

Carolina Hurricanes Celebrate
Stefan Noesen of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates with teammates after a goal during the second period against the New York Islanders in Game One of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Islanders have a good unit that carried them to the playoffs and can possibly help them advance to the next round. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes have an elite defense built to make a Cup run, and minor differences in their defense make all the difference in a playoff series and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Two-Way Defensemen

In the playoffs, a two-way defenseman is vital to success. Victor Hedman helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021. Cale Makar carried the Colorado Avalanche to the 2022 title, winning the Norris Trophy that season and the Conn Smythe Trophy in the playoffs. With goals being hard to come by, great teams have that playmaker from the point that can open up the offense but also find the back of the net with a great shot. They are often the difference in one-goal games, as the Islanders saw firsthand in Game 1.

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Brent Burns scored two points and was the most impactful skater on the ice in the game. His pass to Sebastian Aho on the power play set up the first goal, while his shot from the blue line was redirected by Stefen Noesen into the back of the net. Burns has been an elite two-way player his whole career, and this season has been no exception, as he’s scored 18 goals and 43 assists. In the playoffs, his offensive skills are on full display, and he’s helping carry the Hurricanes in the playoffs.

Brent Burns Carolina Hurricanes
Brent Burns, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes built their entire defensive unit with two-way play in mind. Along with Burns, all six skaters in the unit are reliable puck-handlers and can create offense with their outlet passes, allowing the fast-skating forwards to find scoring opportunities on the rush. In a fast-paced game where goals are up, having a defense that can create turnovers and immediately start up the offense is essential to success. The Hurricanes have a unit that can create offense as well as any in the league, and it gives them a distinct advantage in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders’ defensemen have been more involved offensively this year, joining the rush and shooting the puck more often at the point. Noah Dobson has 13 goals and 36 assists to lead the unit, and Ryan Pulock, oddly enough, was the only player on the team to record a point with his second-period goal in the 2-1 loss. That said, the Islanders don’t have a playmaker on the unit that can put their team over the top. Their defensemen have a handful of skills that make them reliable contributors to the offense but not enough to make them elite playmakers at the blue line.

Hurricanes Top Four Are More Gap-Sound

Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei all put together remarkable seasons on the defensive end of the ice. The three skaters combined for 15.4 defensive point shares and 275 blocked shots this season to lead a defense that allowed only 2.56 goals per game. They shut Game 1 down and closed out the 2-1 victory with their strong play, especially in the final 30 minutes when they held on to the one-goal lead.

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes’ top defensemen are gap-sound and, more importantly, defend well in the defensive and the neutral zones. They don’t give teams many scoring chances and will particularly prevent a team from creating scoring chances in space. The Islanders were chasing Game 1 in the second and third periods, and it played right into the Hurricanes’ hands. Slavin thrives on an opponent trying to aggressively start up the offense as he plays the gaps well and often forces turnovers. Likewise, the entire defense thrives on a team frantically trying to tie the game, which the Islanders were trying to do in Game 1 since they force tough-angle shots and allow their goaltender to make plenty of easy saves in the net.

The modern game is faster and requires defensemen to keep up with opposing offenses and skilled scorers like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Jack Hughes. The Hurricanes can limit teams from starting up the offense in the neutral zone, and they notably step up at the blue line. Likewise, they cut off angles to the net and limit high-danger scoring chances, making it easy for their goaltender in the net to make big saves.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon skates against Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Islanders’ defense is one of the best in the league. However, they don’t have the same capabilities to defend the rush as the Hurricanes. In this series, it can be the Islanders’ undoing as they face a fast-paced forward unit led by Aho, Martin Necas, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The Hurricanes can gash them in space and find a few goals that can affect this series.

Hurricanes Upgraded Unit For a Playoff Run

The Burns acquisition in the offseason was a pleasant surprise for the Hurricanes. He’s stepped up and emerged as one of their best defensemen this season. However, the Hurricanes have made a concerted effort to continue to upgrade their defense with the intention of going deep into the playoffs. At the trade deadline, they acquired Shayne Gostisbehere, another two-way player that rounds out the unit.

Meanwhile, the Islanders improved the defense in the offseason but were otherwise quiet, a reflection of general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello’s style. Their moves, specifically to improve the defense, were good enough to allow them to reach the playoffs, but they didn’t set the team up for playoff success.

Lou Lamoriello New York Islanders
Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders attends the 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Alexander Romanov, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens during the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, has been great defensively. He missed Game 1 with an injury, but even when he plays, he doesn’t add a spark to the offense. Sebastian Aho, who has been a pleasant surprise as a puck-handling defenseman, lacks a great shot or the passing ability to make him an elite two-way player. The Islanders upgraded their defense from the year before, where Zdeno Chara and Andy Greene, two older and slower defensemen, played significant roles. But they didn’t improve it with the playoffs in mind. In the First Round, it’s costing them and could be the reason they are eliminated.

How the Islanders’ Defense Can Take Over This Series

The Islanders need to be more aggressive but, more importantly, shoot the puck on the net. In Game 1, the defensemen were outshot 16-7, and the team lost the shot battle 37-26, which is a recipe for disaster against the Hurricanes. Pulock has a great shot, and if he finds open looks, he needs to take them. Dobson can create chaos near the net by flipping the puck on goal, and he needs to be more willing to do so, even if he doesn’t appear to have a shooting lane. Romanov only has two goals and 20 assists this season, but he has a great shot and needs to tap into it when he returns to the lineup.

Hurricanes goaltender Antti Raanta had a great performance in Game 1, saving 25 shots in the 2-1 victory. However, the Islanders can take over this series if they force him to make more saves and stop difficult shots. Raanta had a .910 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.23 goals-against average (GAA) this year, but only on 644 shots as the Hurricanes’ defense helped him plenty. In comparison, Ilya Sorokin, who is one of the favorites to win the Vezina Trophy, had a .924 SV% and a 2.34 GAA on 1838 shots, as he carried the Islanders to the playoffs. The Islanders don’t have an advantage defensively, but they have an advantage in the net and need to make the games in this series goaltending duels.

The Islanders’ defensive unit isn’t as good as the Hurricanes, which helped them finish the season with the best record in the Metropolitan Division. However, the Islanders have a defense that is good enough to power them to a series victory.

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