During tonight’s game in the nation’s capital, we will learn a lot about this young, scrappy, and largely inexperienced Hurricanes team. Will they be able to reign in their emotions and play their game?
There’s going to be a lot to look out for, but here are some of the biggest keys for the Canes in game one.
Survive the first ten minutes
The defending Stanley Cup champions will have a raucous sold out crowd at Capital One Arena on Thursday, a hostile environment that the Hurricanes have to keep as quiet as possible through the early stages of the game.
That means the Hurricanes have to show poise in their own end. While they finished the year on a three-game winning streak, their defensive zone play was nowhere near where it needs to be entering this matchup, and an early goal from Washington’s potent offense will ignite the crowd and potentially be an early back-breaker if the road team isn’t careful.
The fact of the matter is, though, that the Hurricanes won’t be perfect. They’ll have nerves, and those nerves will lead to mistakes. When that happens, the focus will shift to Petr Mrazek, Carolina’s game one starter.
Mrazek has been the hottest goalie in the Eastern Conference since the first week of February. In his last 15 starts, he is 12-3-0, and his .943 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average over that span both rank third in the NHL, trailing Dallas’ Ben Bishop and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer.
We know Mrazek’s play in the crease can be chaotic, which is a positive in most cases. Tonight, he’ll need to find a way to keep this game in control, like he has so many times this season. If the Canes can escape the first ten minutes with a 0-0 score or, dare I say, a lead, they’ll be in good shape.
Stay out of the box
Obviously, you should always try your best to not take penalties, but when Alex Ovechkin is on the other team, there needs to be an even bigger emphasis on it.
For Carolina, their penalty kill has been a big strength. They have the eighth-ranked regular season penalty kill, and in their home-and-home set in late March against the Capitals, they were three-for-three on the PK.
That does very little, in my mind, to ease the pressure of defending that top unit, though. Alex Ovechkin will stand at the top of the left circle and rifle every chance he gets on net, and regardless of how well Mrazek has played as of late, that’s likely not going to end well if the Canes can’t find a way to take him out of the game to the best of their abilities.
For better or worse, the Hurricanes still have a reputation around the league as a soft team that will cower away from physical play. This series presents them an opportunity to do away with that narrative.
Donning red tonight will be #43, Tom Wilson, a man with a lengthy history of physical, agitating, and sometimes flat-out dirty play. The Canes will have to match his physicality throughout, which means the likes of Micheal Ferland, Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn, Warren Foegele, and even rookie Andrei Svechnikov (whose increased confidence has been accompanied by more bite in his physical game) can’t be bystanders.
Instead of responding to the Caps, the Canes need to go out and take advantage of that huge boost of adrenaline they’ll have an instigate the physicality. Bring the game to the Capitals.
Tonight is going to be a lot of fun. A lot of nerve-wracking, blood-pressure-raising fun. The Hurricanes have a real chance of doing something special, but game one will be a huge test of this club’s mental fortitude. Stealing this game could go a long way.
Let’s see if they can do it.