Nobody wants to lose, but Wednesday’s exhibition wasn’t supposed to be about the final score. In the Canes’ only chance to get up to game speed before the Qualifying Round series against the New York Rangers, the most important thing was knocking the rust off.
And in a few areas, the Canes seemed to do just that. The physicality level was raised pretty quickly into the contest (which bodes well for playoff hockey), the team dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 66% of draws (Jordan Staal was a perfect 9-for-9) and a few select players, (Ryan Dzingel, Haydn Fleury, James Reimer and Vincent Trocheck) showed great compete levels right away.
However, while Carolina seemed to get better as the game progressed, there were still major areas that the team needs to address before August 1.
- Top-line needs to be the best on the ice
When your team opts to put its three best forwards on a line together, they need to produce or at the very least make life hell for the opposition. The exhibition, however, was not a strong display for the new-age TSA line of Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho.
According to NaturalStatTrick.com, the line had a Corsi For percentage of just 20% and gave up four scoring chances, including a high-danger chance against, without registering one, despite leading all forward lines in ice time.
Passes weren’t connecting and backchecking seemed almost non-existent with the trio, but it all may just have been the rust taking a while to come off, at least that’s what the Carolina faithful can hope for.
The Hurricanes have a better all-around first line than New York does, but if they don’t produce, it won’t matter. Throw one Artemi Panarin into that mix and the Canes’ first line is even more important to keep them in contention.
While Carolina has opted to go top heavy, the emergence of a strong second line may help ease that slow start though.
- New guys make an impression
The most notable Hurricane on the ice was by far Trocheck. The newest forward added to the organization came from the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline, and while he struggled to adapt to the Hurricanes’ system in the few games he played before the pause, the time off has seemed to work wonders for him.
He is tenacious on puck carriers and finds a way to get to those dirty areas. Paired up with Nino Niederreiter and Warren Foegele (in the absence of Martin Necas), the trio is a nightmare to deal with. All three play with an edge, crash to the net and play a gritty power forward role. The line was a force on the ice against Washington and it should be expected to work very well against the Rangers.
Trocheck wasn’t the only bright spot for Hurricanes’ trade deadline acquisitions though as both of the defensemen Carolina also acquired drew into the game and had strong showings in a rather flat falling showcase of the overall blueline.
- The “deep” blueline
That “deep” blueline that was all the talk through training camp proved to be pretty shaky once it hit game-time ice. Granted it was an exhibition game, 141 days after playing their last game, against a strong offensive opponent, but still. Not admirable.
By far, the best defenseman on the ice was Haydn Fleury. Coming into the game, Fleury was listed as the seventh defenseman. Basically the odd-man out, despite playing like a top-four defender coming into the pause and having a strong camp.
Well, he gritted his teeth and showed up for the game, leading all skaters in short-handed ice time (the kill was perfect while he was on the ice) and being a presence in all three zones. He has developed well and he has more than earned a spot on the roster.
Jaccob Slavin and Sami Vatanen made up the top pair and while it was fine, the two still had a few gaffs. Slavin seemed strangely unconfident in a few plays and wasn’t the same player Carolina is used to, but a new partner and rust will do that.
Vatanen still seemed questionable within the system, although to be fair, even the regulars looked brand new out there. Vatanen is the closest replacement for Dougie Hamilton the roster can muster, and he showed a developing offensive confidence as the game went on.
Brady Skjei started slow like the rest, but he settled in, and what was most impressive was the glimpses of his skating ability that he showed. He can transition well through the neutral zone and join rushes efficiently and that is a side of his game that can become a huge boost for the Hurricanes. Defensive lapses were there, but getting into a rhythm should help tremendously.
Trevor van Riemsdyk ended up having the least amount of ice time, but his game was steady when he was on the ice. He had a strong playoff performance last season and glimpses of that same type of play showed in the limited time he had.
The disappointing side of the blueline was Jake Gardiner and Joel Edmundson. Gardiner had seemed to be getting better and better every game going into the pause and it’s disheartening to see him regress with the time off. He looked a step off and wasn’t confident with making decisions and became a bit of a liability on a couple of shifts.
Edmundson couldn’t keep his aggressive style in check, taking two avoidable penalties and not contributing much on the defensive side of things. He looked lost a few times and although he has Stanley Cup experience, winning it just last year, this is a totally brand new situation for everyone.
If you ask me, I’d go with:
The top pair will be fine with a little more time, Fleury has played exceptionally and Skjei can be a good complement for each’s style, and the bottom pair brings in TvR’s steady showing Wednesday and keeps Edmundson’s physicality. Gardiner can still draw in should another pairing fail to impress after Game 1, but this is what I feel is the best bet after the exhibition.
- Power play moving well
The power play did connect, though it was during a 5-on-3 against a rookie netminder coming in cold. But still, it connected. The units were all moving the puck well and were just a bit off from each other at times on connecting sure-goal plays. With a little more time, the power play should get going even without Dougie Hamilton and should be a boost for the Hurricanes.
- Keeping it clean
The Hurricanes took six penalties against the Capitals. Four trips, an interference and a hook. While the penalty kill came up big, minus an Ovi one-timer from the left-circle, you just can’t take that many penalties in a playoff game. It’s shooting yourself in the foot taking an avoidable penalty. Especially since that’s where the Rangers killed the Canes this season.
The Rangers went 5-for-15 on the power play against Carolina this season, a 33% success rate. If that rate stayed the same, then in this game for instance, the Rangers would have grabbed two goals from special teams. Couple that with the outlandish goaltending one knows New York will have and it just can’t be allowed to happen if you’re the Hurricanes.
To limit chances and improve their odds of winning, the team needs to keep the sticks in line and not act rash. But, if calls do come, the Canes’ penalty kill still seems to be one of the best.
- Picking a starter
First off, with Mrazek, you’re basically rolling the dice. He is an extremely hot or cold netminder whose biggest strengths seem to only appear when he is feeding off of a hype PNC crowd. Further, the Rangers victimized Mrazek’s loose playing and aggressive tendencies in the three games he started, exploiting his weak lateral movements.
Reimer, on the other hand, has been the better statistical goalie the entire season. His save percentage is 0.914, a whole 0.09 more than Mrazek’s (That’s a lot more than decimals suggest), he held a substantially stronger road record and all while having a calmer and more steady style of play.
Mrazek was shaky in his half of the exhibition game, and while the team’s overall defensive lapses can be more to blame on the final two Washington goals, his tracking and rebound control weren’t great.
Reimer on the other hand was collected and made bigger saves coming in cold. He faced nearly half the shot volume Mrazek did, but this is all one can really go off of.
The fact is that it’s a five-game series and every game is more critical than ever. This isn’t a lose two on the road and you’re still in it type of situation like a normal playoff series. At this point, ride the hotter hand and steadier game.
At the end of the day, like I said earlier, this was an exhibition game, 141 days since the last real game was played in a really weird situation. Things aren’t going to look up to speed or click right away, but these are areas that need to be addressed regardless.
Hopefully the team can work out the kinks and continue to brush away that rust, but this upcoming series will be mostly about adapting. The team that can get a semi-decent game to mesh first, will more than likely be the one continuing on.