At long last, Raleigh gets to remind the entire hockey world how big of a hockey market it really is, and they will do so as the Carolina Hurricanes lay it all out on the line in a must-win game three of this opening round series against the Washington Capitals.
The game-one comeback for the Canes brought some optimism into game two, and another comeback very nearly ended with a 1-1 series being brought back to PNC Arena. But alas, a heartbreaking overtime loss has put Carolina deep in the hole.
For this team, though, that isn’t unfamiliar territory. They have a chance on Monday to start their surge back into the series.
Here are some of the biggest keys to a Hurricanes win and a 2-1 series.
The First Period
In games one and two up in D.C., the Hurricanes got outscored 5-1 in the opening frame, and both of those games ended in one-goal losses (minus the ENG in game one).
Obviously, this is a problem that has to be straightened out in short order. In game one, it was a soft goal from Nicklas Backstrom at the top of the right circle that beat Petr Mrazek and put an end to what had been an ideal start for the Canes. In game two, the Hurricanes skipped the part where they had a good start and just floundered in the opening moments of the game, and the defending champs capitalized in the form of a quick 2-0 lead.
If you feel compelled, you can chalk those slow starts in Capital One Arena up to nerves, especially in game two. The Capitals started on time and hit the ice ready to play a physical game and impose their will on the Hurricanes, who looked timid and overwhelmed. Now, back on home ice for games three and four, the Canes know what to expect - and they have the home crowd behind them.
If Carolina can conquer their first-period demons, they’ve shown that they can play a strong, heavy game to the end. They have to get to their game quickly, though. The Caps have shown that they’re more than capable of jumping all over them.
Clean up the Defensive Zone
Carolina’s top pairing has been mostly excellent through two games. Jaccob Slavin played a marvelous game on Saturday and has been the team’s most reliable shutdown defenseman while Dougie Hamilton has been just as dynamic as he’s been since the beginning of 2019.
It’s the bottom four that has raised some questions.
Mistakes from Justin Faulk went a long way in Washington’s first two goals in game two - he failed to make any sort of play on Backstrom on the Swede’s tap-in goal early in the first period and he turned the puck over ahead of the Caps’ second tally. That just cannot happen. Faulk and Brett Pesce were on the ice for three goals against on Saturday. Again, that just cannot happen.
The third pairing has been a nightmare at times, as well, and the Canes have opted to glue Haydn Fleury to the bench, which means they’ve been playing with five defensemen and rotating guys around to accommodate Trevor van Riemsdyk. Given how game one went, it’s hard to blame them from going that route. The hope is that Calvin de Haan will come back and help balance things out, but if that doesn’t happen, they have to figure something else out that actually makes sense and gives them a chance of fending off Washington’s potent lineup.
Aho ended his lengthy goal drought in style in game two, banking home a deflected puck off the end boards off the skate of Braden Holtby and tying the game at two in the second period. It was a huge moment for a player who needs to have a few more in order for the Canes to get back into the series.
The top line, centered by Aho and flanked by Williams and Nino Niederreiter, needs to be involved in the offense, and that also applies to the man advantage. The first unit has failed to score up to this point, with Carolina’s lone PPG coming from Jordan Staal and the second unit late in the third period in game two. There needs to be more promising results there, and it’ll have to be led by Aho.
Obviously, fatigue is a real factor with Aho’s slump, as are the injuries he’s playing with, but if there’s anything left in the tank, he’s going to have to let it all out as the Canes fight for their playoff lives at PNC Arena this week.
Once upon a time, RBC Center was one of the loudest buildings in the NHL. Now known as PNC Arena, the Canes’ home building is poised to reclaim its territory. If the Hurricanes manage to come out of the box strong, they’ll quickly gain that home ice advantage and have an opportunity to put the Capitals on the ropes.
If you’re going to be watching the game from the stands, be loud. If you’re going to be on the PNC ice surface in a Hurricanes jersey, feed off of the energy and add to it. This city has been waiting a long time for this, and the time has finally arrived.
Monday night is going to be special.