Last week, the Carolina Hurricanes clinched their second straight postseason berth - and their second straight first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals.
The Canes made that possible with their five-game winning streak to close out the regular season, wherein they seemingly started to put it all together at the best possible time.
In addition to that, though, they will get a gargantuan boost in the form of Norris candidate Dougie Hamilton returning from injury after suffering a gruesome fibula fracture almost three months ago against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
He was instantly thrown back into the action alongside Jaccob Slavin on the team’s first pairing.
Today, we have games one and two of the first round on tap, via NHL 20 simulation. For more information on how all of this works, refer back to part one of the series. If you’re new here, you can also go back and see parts one through four, which picked up the season on March 12 and took us all the way through the end of the regular season to where we are now.
Washington got off to a fast start in front of a raucous Capital One Arena crowd.
Jakub Vrana opened the scoring at 4:28 of the first period. Nicklas Backstrom fed him a gorgeous stretch pass right by a flat-footed Joel Edmundson, and Vrana cashed in on a breakaway on Petr Mrazek.
Like in 2019, the Capitals scored the series’ first goal and put pressure on the Hurricanes right away.
A hooking penalty on Justin Williams at 16:43 could have led to a big blow for Carolina, but the Canes put together a stellar penalty kill, allowing just one shot on goal to Alex Ovechkin about halfway through. They escaped the opening period in the nation’s capital down by just a goal.
The Hurricanes weathered the storm early and managed to push back in the second period.
The peak of their play came about eight minutes into the frame, when the Sebastian Aho line pinned the Caps in their own zone for north of a minute and was only stopped when John Carlson got called for a two-minute high-sticking penalty.
After getting largely shutdown in the first minute, the second unit came out and turned the tides. Jake Gardiner moved the puck from behind his own net to a slashing Martin Necas. The rookie flew through the neutral zone, going blue line-to-blue line for a clean offensive zone entry before hesitating towards the net and then dishing a centering pass to Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck slid the puck through the legs of Braden Holtby to tie the game.
Rod Brind’Amour’s group kept mounting pressure as the game reached the forty-minute mark. They outshot the Caps 11-5 in the period, and it took an excellent sequence from Holtby late in the period to keep the game tied.
The third period was much more tightly contested. The Capitals pummeled Mrazek with nine shots on goal in the first nine minutes - almost double their total from the entire second period.
Shot number ten ended up being the difference.
Nic Dowd won a neutral zone face off, which allowed Brenden Dillon to get the puck deep. Garnet Hathaway recovered the puck behind Mrazek, drove through Trevor van Riemsdyk to the front of the net, and found Carl Hagelin cutting to the net. Hagelin put a shot over Mrazek’s outstretched glove.
Carolina wasn’t able to match that goal, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. They had a number of long offensive zone shifts through the remainder of the third period, but Holtby was outstanding.
For the second straight year, Washington came out victorious in a one-goal game in game one.
Holtby was the game’s first star, saving 31 of 32 shots. Mrazek was very good, making 29 save on 27 shots, but he was out-dueled. Hagelin’s goal was the game-winner, and he was very good on the penalty kill.
A year ago, the Hurricanes got put behind the eight-ball after losing both games on the road to open the series. They were able to claw all the back and win the series in seven games, but that’s a very dangerous game to play against a team as explosive as the Capitals.
This time around, game two was a different story.
Not even three minutes into the first period, Jordan Staal opened the scoring. Carolina’s captain stood tall in front of Holtby’s crease as Gardiner and Williams played catch along the boards. Gardiner then turned and fired a pass to Nino Niederreiter, whose shot went off the knee of Staal in front and into the net.
The Hurricanes had their first lead of the series.
Washington’s captain had an answer, though. Ovechkin got a drop pass from Evgeni Kuznetsov on an odd-man rush, and Ovi fired a shot off of the far-side post and by Mrazek just over ten minutes into the game.
From there, it was all Carolina.
Dougie Hamilton scored his first goal since his regular season-ending injury in Columbus, and he did so off of an absolute howitzer one-timer - fed by Jaccob Slavin. The return of the Canes’ first defensive pairing was a huge factor in game two. Slavin and Hamilton weren’t overly noteworthy in game one, but they were truly dominant in game two.
Hamilton got on the scoresheet yet again on the first shift of the second period. Sebastian Aho won an offensive zone face off to Hamilton, who then held onto the puck before threading a great cross-seam pass to Teuvo Teravainen for a backdoor tap-in to make it a 3-1 game.
The Capitals were presented with a golden opportunity six minutes into the second when Aho got two minutes for slashing T.J. Oshie, but Mrazek and company held them off of the scoreboard to preserve that two-goal lead.
Those saves from Mrazek came back to bite the Capitals at 15:20 when Teravainen netted his second goal of the game. Andrei Svechnikov won a board battle with Lars Eller and worked the puck back to the point. Edmundson then attempted to throw a puck through traffic in front. It didn’t get through, but it did bounce out to Teravainen, who corralled it and sent a quick-released snapper over the pad of Holtby to make it 4-1.
Through two periods, Carolina was absolutely rolling, but they got dealt a bad hand early in the third period.
Trade deadline acquisition Sami Vatanen, who was skating alongside Edmundson after being a scratch in game one, went down awkwardly along the boards a few shifts into the third. Play was stopped and the Finnish defenseman couldn’t get off the ice without help from head athletic trainer Doug Bennett.
It took weeks for him to finally join the team, and now there is a very real possibility that his season is over.
In the short term, the injury didn’t deter the Hurricanes. They kept the pressure high, not allowing the Capitals to do much of anything in the way of moving the puck up the ice and generating scoring chances.
The closest they got was an Evgeni Kuznetsov rush play. He took advantage of a tired Canes group and danced through the defense en route to a great scoring chance that he threw off of the crossbar and right out. Mrazek caught a break, but he earned it based on his play up to that point.
As expected, there was a firework show late in the third period of the 4-1 game. Hathaway dropped the gloves with Edmundson deep in the Carolina zone. Both guys got five minutes for fighting and neither had another shift in the game, as there was just 3:52 on the clock when it happened.
Warren Foegele delivered a big hit with just over two minutes to go, which of course drew the ire of Capital One Arena and the entirety of the Washington bench. No penalty was called. Foegele didn’t show up on the scoresheet in game two, but he made a serious impact and had a game-high six hits.
Teravainen found the back of the net twice in Carolina’s game-two victory and was his usual elite self on the penalty kill, as well. Slavin and Hamilton were great and looked like they were totally back on the same page after an average performance in game one.
Mrazek had a quieter night in terms of shot quality that he faced, but he did stop 29 of the 30 shots he saw in a very good road performance when his team desperately needed it.
With the series dead even at one game apiece, the two clubs will travel to Raleigh for games three and four at PNC Arena.
Buckle up, because things are about to get interesting.