This is it. The Carolina Hurricanes will stare their postseason lives directly in the eyes tonight and will try not to blink as the Washington Capitals enter PNC Arena with an opportunity to wrap up this first-round series in six games.
For the Capitals to do that, though, they’ll have to do what hasn’t been done through five games - win on the road.
The Hurricanes will have the support of 19,000+ fans behind them on Monday night. If they can pull out a win, the series will be tied again, and anything can happen in game seven.
Their backs are against the wall. Here are some keys for the Canes as they look to force game seven.
Leaders set the tone
There’s been plenty of talk about how more than half of this Hurricanes team is seeing playoff hockey for the first time in their NHL careers, but now, those same inexperienced players are facing their first elimination game.
For Carolina, the eyes have to shift to the leadership group and the veterans on this team. That starts with Justin Williams, whose postseason has been far from spectacular. For the most part, he’s been a non-factor on the ice. His impact goes beyond production, but here we are in an elimination, so his impact will have to be more prevalent on the ice, as well.
Alternate captains Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk have differing levels of playoff experience, but both of them have been good in this first series, especially Faulk as he has been far more reliable in his own end and hasn’t had many of the one-off blunders that really didn’t bode well for him during the regular season.
In their lopsided loss in Washington on Saturday, the Hurricanes looked overwhelmed and perhaps even timid. Capital One Arena was loud and the Capitals were on a mission to set the tone physically. Now, back on home ice, the Canes can’t let that happen again.
Home ice advantage has been real in this series. Carolina has outscored Washington 7-1 in two home games in this first round while the Caps have outscored the Canes 14-5 on their home ice. The home team has consistently started better, scored the first goal, and set the physical tone. The Hurricanes need to be fly from the opening face off in order to dictate the play and force the Capitals on their heels.
Playing a massive role in this will be who is and isn’t in the lineup tonight. All of Andrei Svechnikov, Jordan Martinook, and Micheal Ferland skated this morning and their statuses are all unknown. I’m not at all a proponent of inserting Svechnikov back into the lineup given the nature of his injury, but if Martinook (lower-body) and Ferland (shoulder/arm) can fight through their injuries, they’re physical presence could be a game-changing addition to Carolina’s depth chart. I think the most likely of the three to play tonight would be Martinook.
And finally, what will the Canes get from Warren Foegele? He has been involved in a lot of garbage after his hit in game four that injured T.J. Oshie, and he didn’t look at all like himself in game five up in Washington. The crowd needs to get behind him tonight and he needs to be calm and himself like he was in games three and four.
Empty the Tank
Since the beginning of October, the Hurricanes have played 87 games. That’s a lot of hockey, but in game 88 tonight, they can’t leave anything on the table. This has to be their biggest and best effort of the year.
Rod Brind’Amour said on Sunday that he expects his team to play their best game on Monday, and to me, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be at their sharpest or best with regards to their execution. Instead, I think it means that regardless of what happens, you’ll know that this team won’t short-change you on effort.
This team has fought for each other, their coach, their team, and their fans all season. They aren’t going to stop doing that now. This has been such a special season for this team and the future is going to be full of more special moments, but the Canes hope that their summer won’t start this week. For them to make that hope a reality, they need a stellar performance against the defending champs in game six.
Then, we can go from there.