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About Last Night: A Brick Wall Stymies the Stars

Petr Mrazek continues the Canes’ stellar play in net with a shutout win.

Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

This is typically where my colleague Cody Hagan will go through The Good, The Bad, and sometimes The Great happenings from last night’s performance. For last night however, the Carolina Hurricanes had two Greats, and the rest was just background noise.

Petr Mrazek stood on his head (the second Canes goalie to do so in as many nights), and the Nino Niederreiter - Sebastian Aho - Justin Williams line continued to be an absolute force on the other end in leading Carolina to a 3-0 victory over the Dallas Stars, and elevating the Canes above the Eastern Conference playoff cut line for the first time in months.

Mrazek Magic

While everyone is aware that competent goaltending has been arguably the main culprit in the Hurricanes’ long postseason drought, few would have foreseen a pivotal home back-to-back playing out quite the way the past two nights have played out at PNC Arena. The combination of Curtis McElhinney on Friday plus the shutout performance by Mrazek on Saturday managed to stop 73 of 74 shots in two games in which the Canes arguably were not the better team, lifting Carolina four crucial points in the standings in the process.

For Mrazek, the sharp play was evident from the jump, as he benefited from a swift start on offense before quickly becoming the center of attention himself. Perhaps his best save in 15 stops in the first period was his lunging effort in robbing Andrew Cogliano at the doorstep.

Mrazek continued to have tremendous anticipatory play in net, shutting down backdoor chances and close-range attempts all night long. Simply put, the work in net tonight won Carolina a hockey game. And Mrazek’s performance, coupled with the McElhinney efforts, might just provide the Canes with the stable back end required to earn their first playoff appearance in 10 years.

Top Line Leads the Way

While even Rod Brind’Amour admitted that his team was sluggish and flat throughout most of the game, the one group that continued their run of quality play was the line of Niederreiter-Aho-Williams. This trio broke the ice early to give the Canes what turned out to be all the offense they would need.

Importantly, this first goal is a microcosm of what has made this grouping so dangerous for close to a month now. Niederreiter provided the strong defensive effort and created the turnover, ups the puck to a streaking Aho, who patiently awaited Williams getting into a dangerous area, and then finds the vet who buried the first goal of the night.

This group continues to compliment each other in ways that have a lasting effect beyond just a single game. Each player has a clearly defined role and style that provides comfort and familiarity to his linemates that allow them to play together as if they have been partners for years, not weeks. Niederreiter gets to the tough parts of the ice and helps create space for himself and others. Aho uses his speed and skill to facilitate opportunities for everyone on the ice, and Williams uses his accurate shot and experience to find soft openings, sometimes in unconventional places, to create angles for chances.

For the first time in a long time, the Canes have a group of forwards that you would question breaking apart. Having that stability allows Brind’Amour to sort through the rest of his roster, especially once Jordan Staal returns, to create a spark while knowing that he has a group in place that should provide him consistent production.

Poor 40, Then a Solid 20

While Brind’Amour made it clear he felt the Canes were second-best in each of the last two nights, he was able to point to a third period on Saturday that saw the Canes appear to get back into the style of game that has made them so successful since the turn of the calendar to 2019. Mrazek continuing to be a dominant force in net certainly did not hurt, but ultimately the Canes began to drive the action more and Mrazek saw the fewest shots of the night (seven) in what should have been the Stars’ most desperate period.

Perhaps most encouraging was the killer instinct the Canes featured on their only power play of the night. With just over five minutes remaining, and still holding a two-goal lead, the Canes went on the man advantage. While the first unit did not cash in, the movement, spacing and crisp passing was a positive sign and only a harbinger for what was to come from the second unit moments later.

A terrific feed from Andrei Svechnikov set up Micheal Ferland out in front, as he slipped the puck past Anton Khudobin for the final tally of the evening. Even during the terrific 16-5-1 streak that the Canes have been on since December 31, they have often times sputtered when holding a lead. Last night featured a mature performance that improved in the third as the Canes held on to a lead, and featured an exclamation point as they converted on an opportunity to close an opponent out.

Moral of the Story

The Canes and the fanbase can rightly be excited that they have popped their heads above the cut-line in the East following last night’s win. But that is nothing to spend too much time celebrating. They clearly know that the final 23 contests will all hold significant consequences. And with stretches through March that are considerably more difficult than the current run of games which continue to feature teams below the Canes in the standings for six more dates, the Canes know they must keep their heads down and try to pile up the points before the road gets more difficult.

But last night was nonetheless a step in the right direction. And if the Canes can continue to get play in net like they did this entire weekend, late Spring hockey could return to Raleigh for the first time in a decade.

Now, it’s Limbo Time!