After about four and a half months off of hockey, the Carolina Hurricanes returned in dominant fashion, sweeping through their Stanley Cup Qualifier Matchup with the New York Rangers and being the first team to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs proper.
Their reward? At least another week off, with round one of the playoffs scheduled to start Tuesday, Aug. 11. Obviously there are both positives and negatives of a long layoff, with the negatives exacerbated by being stuck in the Toronto bubble.
“I think the focus here is we don’t want to lose sharpness but at the same time we’re not playing for a while,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “And then really the mental side of things, for the guys trying to figure how to keep them engaged. That’s the challenge. We’ve got some ideas but we’re limited too. Obviously we can’t go anywhere. There aren’t things we can do to kind of get away from it. That to me will be the big challenge this week, how to stay sharp and at the same time mentally staying with it because we’re not engaged right now. So that’s the real trick this week.”
So, is a long layoff going to be a major issue going into the next round? The short answer is that I don’t think so, for a number of reasons. But we’re not about short answers here, so let’s dive in.
The biggest argument for the long layoff not hurting, and actually helping, is that it’s very likely the Canes will see Dougie Hamilton ready to roll for game one. Hamilton returned to full team practice on Wednesday.
Dougie Hamilton: "The guys played great the first three games, so it was a lot of fun to watch them and cheer them on. I'm just itching to be able to join them."https://t.co/UzNF7etURh— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) August 6, 2020
So, it stands to reason that Hamilton should be in there game one. And while the Canes’ blue line played very well against the Rangers, there’s no understating what a massive addition Hamilton will be.
At the time of his first injury in January, the Canes’ top offensive blue liner was playing at a Norris caliber level, and sat second in the league in goals by a defenseman with 14 and fourth in points with 47.
Having Hamilton in the lineup makes the Canes better in all facets of the game, especially on the power play. Getting this extra week off to get a top-pairing blue liner back at 100% is a big boost, especially as the Canes prepare to square off with one of the East’s top four seeds.
Debunking a narrative
Of course, everyone will point to the sweep chain the Canes found themselves in last year as evidence that a long layoff could be an issue. After sweeping the Penguins in the first round last year, the New York Islanders had 10 days off before facing the Canes in round two. Carolina swept them.
The Canes then had five days off before squaring off with the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. Boston swept them.
However, there’s a couple reasons that argument does not hold up.
First of all, as Brind’Amour pointed out, there really is no comparison between preparing for those series and their preparations now.
“Last year or any previous year, you’re at home,” Brind’Amour said. “You have so many more things to fill your time with when you’re in a regular situation. Here, you’re kind of limited. I think the two times are totally different. I think this whole playoffs is unique in every which way you can describe it. Experience, I think, goes out the window.”
I’m also not really sure the long layoffs/rust played as much of a factor as many seem to think. Let’s start with the Canes-Islanders series.
You’d think, coming off an emotional game seven win, the Canes might have jumped on a rusty Islanders team, right? Well, as most of us probably remember, they didn’t.
Game one was scoreless through regulation until Jordan Staal won it in overtime. In game two, the Islanders were definitely the better team, with the combined goaltending of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney and a couple quick strikes stealing a win for the Canes as the Islanders outshot them 27-18.
Game three was similarly close, with Justin Williams scoring the game winner about midway through the third and the Canes adding a pair of empty netters. Carolina didn’t have a blowout win until game four.
Let’s move on to the Boston series. While the Bruins scored first, the Canes got off to a great start in game one, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period (it would have been 3-1 if Brock McGinn hit the net on a shorthanded rush) and outshooting the Bruins 25-18 through two frames. A parade to the penalty box led to the Canes’ final period collapse and Boston’s 5-2 win.
That third period put the whole thing off the rails, as game two as an unmitigated disaster, and Tuuka Rask slammed the door in games three and four in Raleigh. The Canes being outmatched and banged up seemed to have more to do with their loss there than the long layoff.
“Looking back at last year, I would say there were other factors that went into that series,” said Jaccob Slavin. “I think we had a lot of little things on the ice that we didn’t do as well as the first two series last year, so I think those are the biggest factors. Taking too many penalties, especially against that power play last year, was a big factor. I don’t think the long layoff is going to hurt.”
So, while both of those series involved the team coming off the long layoff getting swept, that seems like more of a coincidence than a causation.
Extremely recent history
The biggest reason to be encouraged that a long layoff won’t matter is that the Canes had four and a half months before facing the Rangers (although obviously both teams had the same layoff in that case).
All they did was thoroughly embarrass a team that gave them fits in the regular season. The Canes outscored the Rangers 11-4. The goaltending was stellar, the defense played well, special teams made a difference and the Canes’ top line bulldozed through a shaky Rangers defensive corps.
“We just took four months off, and I think we were pretty sharp going into the Rangers series,” Slavin said. “I think there are still things we need to work on, but I don’t think the long layoff is going to be the issue.”
While the Canes’ upcoming opponent may have played a little more recently, the Canes will also be coming off much more meaningful games than their round robin opponent.
While, as Brind’Amour said, the Canes will face difficulties staying engaged for a week in the bubble, every indication so far is that should be a task they’re capable of meeting.