The Carolina Hurricanes almost certainly didn’t get the memo that Wednesday night’s tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning started at 5 p.m., because they didn’t start playing until almost exactly 7 p.m. as they stumbled their way through one of their worst games of the season.
Things got pretty ugly, and the Canes reaped what they sowed in a 3-0 shutout loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Bolts.
Let’s talk about last night.
Ned Left for Dead
The only tangible positive that the Hurricanes can take away from this game was the stellar work from Alex Nedeljkovic.
Four days removed from his first NHL shutout against the Bolts, he came back with what I’d argue was an even better performance as the Canes struggled to do execute even the most basic plays.
With very little assistance from the team in front of him, Nedlejkovic was excellent and managed to keep the Hurricanes in the game until the Bolts extended their lead to three goals via an empty-net goal in the final minute of the third period.
Perhaps his biggest save of the night came on Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded breakaway halfway through the second period. Had Tampa gotten its third goal there, the game likely would’ve been all but over before the Canes could even find their game towards the end of the period.
His last “big save” came in the third period on a point-blank shot from an unmarked Steven Stamkos to set up one last push from the Canes to try to claw their way back from what seemed like an insurmountable deficit given how lights-out Andrei Vasilevskiy was playing.
Game by game, it’s looked like Nedlejkovic has gained confidence and comfort in the crease for the Hurricanes. His puck playing has looked a great deal better and more poised and his play in between the pipes has offered some promise for what he could do at the NHL level.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Lightning had 3.28 expected goals in all situations on Tuesday, and Nedlejkovic held them to two. Statistically, he has been the better goalie when compared to James Reimer, albeit in fewer games to this point. Reimer does carry a -2.86 goals saved above average into what is expected to be his start on Thursday night in Tampa Bay.
At the very least, Ned’s last two starts have been a very promising glimpse at what he may be able to do in the NHL when he is at his best. At the very most, it has given the Hurricanes a reason to consider keeping him around over a struggling Reimer when Petr Mrazek returns from injury.
I find it incredibly unlikely that will happen, but he has been good enough to at least mention it as a possibility. A much-needed strong showing from Reimer tonight would go a long way in making that a moot point.
Being Too Cute
“Cute” is a good compliment under most circumstances. The word brings images of dogs into my mind and it makes me very happy.
In the context of how the Hurricanes play hockey, though, it does not bring such thoughts to captain Jordan Staal.
“Just trying to be a little cute,” Staal said after the Canes blew a 2-0 lead and eventually lost to the Panthers last week. “It’s been going on for a little long and we’ve gotten away with it. We gotta find a way to get to the game that we know we can play.”
That issue was on full display on Wednesday as the Hurricanes insisted on making too many passes in a game where they simply weren’t generating enough offense to take those risks.
Brock McGinn had a chance on a short 2-on-1 rush, and instead of gearing up to take the high-danger shot, he opted to cut down his angle to a point where it was obvious that he wouldn’t shoot and slid a pass across the slot to a covered Sebastian Aho at the back post. The puck just flew away into the corner and the grade-a chance was wasted.
Andrei Svechnikov had a similar chance coming down the wing, and again, he passed up a shot for a pass that had very little chance to get through. Spoiler alert: it didn’t get through.
The Hurricanes are a high-end team with talent that can carry them through a lot of the ups and downs of an NHL season, but on a night like last night against a team as good as the Lightning, trying to do too much just puts additional nails into your own coffin.
Like Staal said last week, this is a theme for the Canes that needs to be squashed out. Their first game of the four-game set against the Bolts on Saturday was as close to a perfect game that they have played all season. They were all over Tampa in all three zones and they weren’t trying to do too much.
Pucks on net, pucks deep, etcetera, etcetera, you know the drill...
Rod Brind’Amour said himself after the game that they didn’t generate any offense until maybe halfway through the game. When the Hurricanes are playing true to their identity, it doesn’t take them half of a game (or, in my opinion of last night’s game, roughly 40 minutes) to start creating chances. They’re just too good to find themselves falling into a trap of trying to do too much.
It can work against Chicago or Detroit, but it will not work against Tampa Bay or Florida.
Anyway, here’s a video of a dog.
Figuring Out the Top Line
To this point in the season, I think it’s very fair to say that the Hurricanes’ best forward line has not been the line featuring Aho or Svechnikov. It’s been Vincent Trocheck’s trio featuring Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas.
It’s unfair to expect Trocheck’s line to carry the offense at 5-on-5 play. As productive as they have been, they won’t keep the pace they’ve been at for the full duration of the season, especially not without the help of the Aho line.
Aho and Svechnikov are both point-per-game players at this point, but it’s pretty apparent that they aren’t playing at the level they were at last season. McGinn provided a punch of energy to the line and it helped them out. The scrappy winger might have even been playing the best hockey out of anyone on that line for a good stretch of games.
That wasn’t going to last forever, though, and the last couple of games have seen them cool off offensively and Brind’Amour went to the blender during the second intermission to try to provide a spark. Aho centered Necas and Jordan Martinook while Svechnikov got bumped to Trocheck’s line.
That switch was made with the outlook of that game in mind, so it’s entirely possible that they go back to the lines they have been rolling as of late, which includes their convincing win against the very same Lightning.
The Canes are definitely feeling the loss of Teuvo Teravainen right now. He gives the team so many more options in their top six because of how versatile he is and how well he controls puck possession for the club when he is on the ice.
It will be interesting to see where they go from here. They love using a gritty player like McGinn or Martinook alongside two skill forwards, and it has certainly worked well for them in the past. Will they flirt with the idea of stacking the first line with talent or stick to the configuration they’ve used for most of the season?
Tune into tonight’s game to find out, I suppose.