Here we go again.
Just one off-day removed from ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in a stunning game seven double overtime, the Carolina Hurricanes will hit the ice again tonight, now with a clean slate and a new opponent.
That opponent is the New York Islanders, a team that lost their captain and franchise centerpiece John Tavares over the summer and looked to be on the brink of falling apart. That absolutely didn’t happen, though.
Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Isles have been one of the biggest surprises (along with the Hurricanes) in the NHL, and their first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins only added to their legitimacy as a team that could go all the way.
The Canes have different plans for them, though. Here are some of the biggest keys and storylines for these two Metropolitan Division teams entering game one of the Eastern Conference semi-final.
Round one was an emotional rollercoaster for the Hurricanes.
The seventh-seeded Canes quickly fell behind in the series thanks to a pair of losses in Washington to kick things off before battling back and ultimately stealing the series in double overtime of game seven on the road. Along the way, rookies Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele were at the heart of controversy and things got ugly at different points throughout.
This is a new team and a new series now, and you’d have a tough time finding two teams that are more different than the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders.
Just based on total shot attempts at 5-on-5, the Capitals were seventh in the NHL in pace of play during the regular season and sixth among teams that qualified for the postseason. The Islanders were dead last.
In just one season under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders went from being one of the worst defensive teams in hockey to one of the better teams in that regard, thanks also to their stellar goaltending. Offensively, they slow things down and play more of a “quality over quantity” style of game as opposed to the style Carolina played for much of the season where they threw every puck they could on net.
Round one was about emotions and quick counter offense. Round two will be about schemes, positioning, and finding out which team can dictate the pace of play.
From a quality stand point, we’re going to see some great hockey being played over the next couple of weeks. Carolina has to adjust appropriately, but they also need to just put their foot down, play their game, and force New York to be uncomfortable.
Carolina earned their series win over Washington, but they didn’t play their best hockey, particularly in the defensive zone on the road.
A lot of mistakes were made in d-zone coverage from guys you wouldn’t expect it from. Brett Pesce had a number of rough moments, Dougie Hamilton was a train wreck in spurts, and Jaccob Slavin was... well, never mind, he was amazing. He’s always amazing. My goodness, he had one hell of a first round. Mercy...
Anyway, my point is that the Hurricanes’ saw some serious breakdowns, both from their d-men and their forwards. A team like the Islanders will make you pay for those mistakes. That’s what they feed off of.
The Canes have to clean things up, and they have to do it right away. Carolina kept spotting Washington two goals at Capital One Arena, and they were able to fight back because the Caps just didn’t have a well-structured game when they played with the lead. The Islanders will trap you and frustrate you if they get a lead, which is why they’ve reached the point they’re at now.
Duel of the “Show Me” Goalies
One of the biggest storylines for both Carolina and New York this season has been the rise of their starting goalies.
Obviously, Petr Mrazek has risen as the year has progressed and was one of the best backstops in hockey from mid-December through the end of the regular season. On the other side of the ice, Robin Lehner has been absolutely outstanding in his first year with the Isles. Overcoming a number of personal obstacles, the former top prospect has totally resurrected his career and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. He had a .930 save percentage in 46 games during the regular season and posted a .956 in New York’s sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
Both of these goalies were unrestricted free agents over the summer and neither of them were going to get legitimate, longer-term contracts. Instead, they signed identical one-year, $1.5-million contracts just to have an opportunity to prove that they belong in the NHL. Both of them have achieved that goal and have played primary roles in getting their teams to the second round of the postseason.
So, who will win this battle? Lehner made easy work of the Pens in round one while Mrazek had his ups and downs in a seven-game series against the Caps. The boys in blue will be rested, but the boys in white and red will be fresh off of a dramatic series win and amped to hit the ground running for this series.
Mrazek has to be the guy he was in game seven and in Carolina’s home games in the first round. If he is, the Canes have a real chance to ambush Barclays Center and steal game one out from under the rested (and perhaps rusted?) Isles.