While the series-clinching goal from Brock McGinn will never leave the minds of fans as a glorious moment in franchise history, the Carolina Hurricanes must now turn the page quickly to their next mountain to climb: The New York Islanders. After taking down the defending Stanley Cup Champs, they now must take down the coach of the defending champs separately, as Barry Trotz continues what has been a remarkable turnaround with the Islanders. Below is a breakdown of how the different units that are going to run headlong into each other match up.
Canes Attack vs. Isles Defense
In just one season, the Islanders have executed one of the more stunning turnarounds that a team has ever undergone. Not just in the standings, which they clearly improved upon to tally 103 points on the season, but moreso regarding the style of their hockey.
The Islanders went from an historically poor goal prevention team just a season ago (the worst in the league by a wide margin in allowing 296 goals), to the absolute best in the league by dropping a whopping 100 (!) goals off of their ledger at 196. While the addition in net of Robin Lehner and a few other changes were certainly helpful, the main change was a total change in philosophy from Trotz behind the bench.
The trapping, defensive-minded brand of hockey that Trotz has brought to Brooklyn and Long Island was in desperate need of buy in from his forwards who, for most of the past handful of seasons, had spend more time looking to do anything but skate back hard and assist on the back check. But with the loss of elite goal-scorer John Tavares, the core of forwards have all leaned into their role as defensive players, including terrific work that has been led by veterans such as Leo Komarov and Valtteri Filppula. The message even got across to the most talented offensive player in Mathew Barzal, as the 21-year-old slowed offensively this season with only 18 goals, but by all accounts grew as a two-way hockey player under his new tutelage.
On the back end, the development of a pair of Isles defensemen in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock has been a major catalyst in the success of the blueline. With each of them developing into legitimate top-four defensemen, the Isles were able to absorb the loss of Calvin de Haan — ironically, to the Canes.
Strategically, the battle between these two units on the ice will come down to the Hurricanes being able to get the puck behind the Islanders and establish a consistent forecheck. This was something Carolina struggled with in early regular season matchups, as they floundered in losing three games to the Isles before Thanksgiving with a total of three goals in those contests. Perhaps the Canes will get back Andrei Svechnikov and even Micheal Ferland at some point in the series to extend the offensive threats deeper into the lineup.
But central to each line will be cracking the code of entering the zone against the Trotz-designed neutral zone trap. As witnessed even in the first round matchup against the Caps, at times the Canes had to maintain great patience and continued to dump the puck with little success in generating meaningful offense and pressure. But with Carolina operating aggressively on the boards with their defensemen pinching down to keep pucks in the offensive zone, you will likely see the true battle of this series unfold in those moments. By being one of the more aggressive teams in that situation, the Canes could potentially open themselves up to some dangerous odd-man chances if they are not successful in keeping pucks in the zone. If they are successful, then the same recipe for goals applies for the Canes: traffic in front of the net, and finding a way to get shots through the maze of willing shot blockers for the Isles.
Isles Attack vs. Canes Defense
As with any fundamental change in how you play the game, the Islanders experienced not only a change in results on the defensive end with the move to Trotz as coach, but also a slow down in production on the offensive end. After scoring 264 goals a season ago in an effort to keep up with the leaking on the defensive end, the Isles regressed somewhat to just 228 goals (21st in the league) offensively this season.
A portion of that slow down can again be traced to Tavares fleeing to Toronto, but most of it is philosophical. Anders Lee was the leading goal-scorer with 28, but that pales in comparison to the 40 that he supplied a season ago. What the Isles have been able to do offensively is have balance and establish a forecheck with a mix of speed from players such as Barzal, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, and Lee, combined with a serious physical presence established by rough & tumble players such as Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and even part-timers like Tom Kuhnhackl. What appeared to be an awkward blend of talent and somewhat unskilled physical presence has actually blossomed into an intriguing mix that manages to keep opponents off beat.
While the defensive core is clearly the strength of the Hurricanes, securing the puck and exiting the zone efficiently will be the most important thing the Canes do in their own end. The Isles offense thrives on forechecking and turnovers. Furthermore, clean exits are also the best way to give the Carolina forwards opportunities to carry the puck in or just get to dumped pucks behind the Isles defense.
In their sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Isles got massive series’ from Jordan Eberle (4 goals, 2 assists) and Josh Bailey (3 goals, 1 assist). Eberle has benefited from playing alongside Barzal and Lee on the top line, but slowing that group will be important in terms of keeping the Isles off the scoreboard.
At the end of the series, it may come down to how airtight the Hurricanes defense is against the Isles. While we know the Islanders will make the Canes earn every goal based on their system and philosophy, the Canes are seeking to be more aggressive and in turn provide that same kind of solid defensive effort based on the assembled talent they have on the blueline. If they can keep the Isles attack in check, the opportunities they create on the other end could be the difference in the series.
Canes power play vs. Isles penalty kill
Special teams is flat-out an area where the Hurricanes would seem to have an advantage. While the Canes power play has been perplexing most of the season, finishing 20th (17.8%) in the league, the Islanders penalty kill has been just as average with only a 79.9% kill rate, good for 17th in the league. The loss of veteran forward Andrew Ladd was a blow to their penalty kill, but the average nature of the Isles’ kill in general provides you perhaps a glimpse at their relative defensive skill once teams can break into the zone with controlled possession.
With that said, the Isles were able to keep the Penguins down to just 1 for 12 on the power play in round one, while the Canes continued to struggle, going 3 for 25 on the man advantage against the Caps. The Canes were able to generate decent chances when they established time in the zone, so watch the zone entries for Carolina as a barometer for how these units will compete with each other.
Isles power play vs. Canes penalty kill
The Canes penalty kill, which statistically is the best special teams unit in the series at 8th in the NHL (81.5%), will face an totally different challenge than the fear-inducing Capitals powerplay that is spearheaded by Alex Ovechkin. The Isles enter the series coming off of a 2 for 13 effort in their sweep of the Pens, but on the season they were a dormant 29th (14.5%) with the extra man. The Canes penalty kill was a massive part of their final two series wins, including a short-handed goal in Game 7, as well as a crucial kill during the overtime portion of the contest.
For the Canes, the goal on the penalty kill will really be about reducing the number of opportunities that are provided to the Isles by playing a disciplined game at even strength, and thereby allowing them to remain in sync as a five-on-five team. While on the kill, they will have to keep an eye on Anders Lee, who has had the greatest success with 10 power play goals on the season as the top line for the Isles has basically doubled as their first power play unit.
As these two units matchup, if Carolina can maintain the focus and intensity they have provided all season in these scenarios, they will be in fine shape to win the special teams battle.
At this point, it is clear that Petr Mrazek has taken the Carolina net, and barring injury, will likely see the net for the duration of the postseason. The Islanders featured a similar timeshare to what the Canes did with Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney with their tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss during the regular season. As the playoffs dawned, however, Lehner has earned the net and has yet to look back. The Vezina finalist’s sparkling .956 save percentage in round 1 was a major factor in the series, and it was basically in line with the .930 save percentage he posted in 43 starts in the regular season.
Lehner is a tall (6’4) goalie who remains not just an upright presence, but also maintains his athleticism in net. While not as aggressive as Mrazek, Lehner has shown the ability to make aggressive plays with his stick.
Interestingly, the Canes did not actually get to face Lehner this season in their four meetings, as Greiss seemed to have the Canes number most of the year. Would the Isles revert to Greiss if Lehner struggles? Perhaps, but what that bit of information mostly brings to light is the unique circumstances regarding this series.
While these are divisional teams that are familiar with each other, with every meeting from January 8th or earlier (and three of those coming before Thanksgiving), both teams are decidedly different as they reconvene in late April. The Canes have yet to get an opportunity to solve Lehner. The Isles faced three netminders from Carolina, including Scott Darling in the early going.
The bottom line is, who plays best in net will have a lot to say about who wins the series, but what has happened up to now this season will not have a lot to say about how well these players perform in net.
The Hurricanes enter this series a bit more battered than the Islanders. But with the extended rest, are the Isles rusty?
An additional factor is that, after playing to the Nassau Coliseum crowd in the first round, the Isles return to Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the second round. Will that diminished home ice advantage hurt the Isles? It certainly can’t help. I look for the Canes to continue their work on the road by getting at least a split before returning home. From there, the Isles will reengage and the grinding portion of this series will commence. The Canes will emerge victorious yet again however, this time in 6 games and on home ice.