WASHINGTON — There was no question heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs that the Carolina Hurricanes were in for a bit of a learning curve as they entered their first playoff series in a decade, and the first-ever trip to the NHL’s second season for the majority of their roster. Thursday night at Capital One Arena, they found out just how steep that curve is.
Playoff hockey often means games played at different speeds, with different levels of physicality and much less of a margin for error. The Canes found that out early and often in their 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 1, failing to capitalize on a multitude of early chances that could have tilted the ice in their favor.
It was a Jordan Staal point-blank shot that somehow missed the net entirely. It was a Nino Niederreiter pass that had two wide open teammates on the far side of the net, but went right into Dmitry Orlov’s skates. It was Jordan Martinook overskating a pass that would have had him set up ten feet from Braden Holtby and no defender nearby.
And then the opportunistic Caps struck, Nicklas Backstrom - who else? - surprising everyone, including Petr Mrazek, by going backhand-forehand in the blink of an eye to snap a shot through Jaccob Slavin’s legs and over Mrazek’s glove. Just like that, the hard work went for nothing, and the Canes were in a hole. Two power-play goals followed, and the Caps were able to go on cruise control.
Staal, one of the few Hurricanes who has extensive playoff experience, knew what he was seeing. “Everything kind of went their way in the first. They came out strong. If our PK was a little better off the start, a little more aware - including myself - I think we’d be in a different scenario.”
The Canes, though, were only scratching the surface. They then got a rude introduction to that other evergreen part of playoff hockey: bafflingly inconsistent officiating.
Micheal Ferland was called for interference for finishing a check a split second after the puck left the vicinity. Andrei Svechnikov, predictably, took an offensive-zone hooking penalty. Justin Faulk may have thought he could get away with a lazy high stick, but that hope was quickly snuffed out when he was summarily dispatched.
In each case, it was a penalty by the letter of the law. But in each case, it’s a penalty that’s rarely called this time of year. Either way, they were plays that couldn’t happen, and while Justin Williams went to bat for his teammates in a plea to referees Trevor Hanson and Brad Meier asking for equal treatment, he himself was victimized by a veteran play by Backstrom to goad Williams into a holding-the-stick penalty just minutes later.
Meanwhile, the Capitals took just one penalty, for too many men on the ice, in the first two periods. They added calls for hooking against Jakub Vrana and high sticking against T.J. Oshie in the third period. That isn’t to say they didn’t commit any others, to be sure. But again, this is the playoffs, where the teams that have been here before tend to get the benefit of the doubt more often than the neophytes.
The special teams failing at both ends was a concern for Rod Brind’Amour, who knew that the way to steal a game on the road was to win the special teams battle. “We talked about the first thing we needed to do [on the PK], and we didn’t do it,” he said. “On our power play we did nothing that we wanted to do. That’s frustrating for me, this time of year, especially when we had a couple days to talk about it.”
To their credit, after a shell-shocked end to the first period, the Canes slowly started to get their legs underneath them past the midway point of the second, even if the officiating (and, for that matter, the scoreboard) didn’t reflect that, Svechnikov’s third-period markers notwithstanding. But it served as a stark reminder: no matter how many must-win and would-really-like-to-win playoff-like games you play in the regular season, the actual postseason is a whole different world.
And that extends to Mrazek, who could only realistically be blamed for the opening goal. Off a screen, it’s understandable, if disappointing. But despite that, three goals on 17 shots is not a good look for the netminder who has carried the Canes down the stretch. This entire series is likely to follow the script of Game 1: lengthy, sustained pressure from the Canes on offense, opportunistic counterattacking by the Caps.
Mrazek is likely to go long stretches without seeing the puck, and he needs to get comfortable with that. It’s not something that every goalie can do, and the Canes’ hopes may depend in large part on how he responds to that challenge.
With a practice day to reset tomorrow, the Canes now know the level of play required to succeed in the postseason. It’s one thing to watch it on television, as they’ve done for the past ten years. It’s another entirely to actually see it.
Early in the year, the Canes were still unsure of themselves, carrying play but not getting the results to show for it. They turned it on late, propelling them to a playoff berth and the situation they find themselves in right now. This series still has a chance to follow that same pattern, and when Saturday afternoon rolls around, we’ll know how well they learned the lessons of Game 1, lessons the Caps learned long ago and to which the Canes were introduced for the first time Thursday.