Last night’s meeting between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes looked an awful lot like playoff hockey. It was the type of physical, hard-nosed hockey that is meant to be played in late March and April.
While the Lightning prevailed, aided by a four goal third period, there were positives to take away from some of Carolina’s play, specifically their net drives in the first period.
As the hockey intensifies and goals become harder to score, the pretty plays seem to evaporate and more and more goals are scored from in tight. And if the goals do come from the slot or blue line, it is a safe bet that a strong net front presence influenced the tally.
Both Hurricanes’ first period goals came as a result of hard drives to the net, backing up defenders and forcing Tampa goaltender Louis Domingue to battle.
The Canes’ first goal featured a snazzy pass from Sebastian Aho to Nino Niederreiter who toe dragged and fired the puck past Domingue.
But Niederreiter only has that time and space thanks to a solid net drive by Justin Williams.
With both Victor Hedman and Cedric Paquette focused on the puck carrier, Aho, Williams’ drive towards the blue paint draws Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, leaving Niederreiter with plenty of space to play with in the slot. He makes no mistake.
The second Hurricanes’ goal featured a similar net front presence.
The obvious net drive comes in the form of a strong, Erik Cole like, wide drive by rookie Andrei Svechnikov, but just as critical is Teuvo Teravainen’s path towards the crease.
First, Svechnikov blows by Braydon Coburn forcing Domingue to hug the post and play deep. As the puck ricochets into the slot, Teravainen brings Tampa back checker Alex Killorn to the net with him leaving Dougie Hamilton time and space in the slot. More importantly, Teravainen’s drive keeps Domingue deep in his net, preventing the goaltender from getting on top of his crease and better challenging Hamilton’s wrister.
Unfortunately, the same type of net drives that aided the Hurricanes early plagued them as the game wore on. The Lightning began to be the more desperate and hungry team fighting for every inch of ice, especially in front of the net, as seen here on Anthony Cirelli’s third period equalizer.
It is a 4 on 4 situation and the Hurricanes appear to be in decent shape with each defender accountable for a Lightning attacker. Steven Stamkos gets a step, but is closed nicely by Jordan Staal and Jaccob Slavin, forcing Stamkos to throw a backhand pass towards the goal.
It is painful to watch the battle that ensues between Cirelli and Teravainen, who it should be noted starts in good position. The 21 year-old Cirelli simply establishes inside body position on Teravainen, fights through a stick check and outmuscles the Finnish Hurricane in front. Other camera angles don’t help Teravainen.
Ooof. Curtis McElhinney never had a chance and Teravainen winds up on his back with a minus on the stat sheet as his only reward.
Tampa’s game winning goal saw a similar trend.
The Lightning enter the zone with possession and eventually the puck finds the stick of Hedman. The reigning Norris Trophy winner is a dangerous and gifted offensive player, but is located in a low danger position near the blue line along the boards. But again the Lightning are hungrier to get to the blue paint and the veteran Ryan Callahan nets his seventh goal of the season.
Callahan catches Warren Foegele puck watching (a reoccurring problem for the Hurricanes which was discussed last week) and again establishes inside body position. By the time Foegele realizes what is happening, Hedman has found Callahan’s tape for an easy redirection.
The early net drives led to Hurricanes’ goals, but that level of competitive hunger must be matched at the other end of the ice for a full 60 minutes if the Canes hope to win these playoff style games.