The Hurricanes came into this week facing their two biggest games of the season, and came up with two strong performances to win both. Carolina topped the Florida Panthers 3-0 Thursday night to move into first place in the Central Division and the entire league.
The Canes picked up the two-game sweep of the Panthers thanks to special teams play, another big game from Vincent Trocheck and Alex Nedeljkovic’s third shutout of the season.
Let’s talk about last night.
Special teams get it done, power play finds a rhythm
For the second game in a row, the Hurricanes’ special teams played a huge factor in the victory, with the power play picking up what turned out to be the game winner in the first period, and the penalty kill finishing a sterling 4 for 4 while not allowing much in the way of scoring chances for the Panthers’ power play.
“Tonight, special teams won us the game,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “Our penalty kill was really sharp. [Nedeljkovic] is a big part of that. I don’t know how many shots we gave up but it wasn’t much on the penalty kill. That was huge. They have a really good power play, so that was, I think, the game. And then our power play obviously got us a nice one. So special teams were big.”
The lone power-play goal for the Canes continued an interesting trend.
The Hurricanes came into the first game of this set against Florida off a four-game stretch of only getting one power play a game. They didn’t score a power-play goal in any of those games. Tuesday, they had four power plays, and scored two power-play goals on their third and fourth man advantages.
Thursday, they got two power plays in the first period. The first was abysmal, with the Hurricanes struggling to gain and hold the offensive zone and Florida generating more chances shorthanded.
The second gave them the lead in short order on a brilliant play just six seconds in. Jordan Staal won the faceoff back to Dougie Hamilton, who set up Andrei Svechnikov on the half wall. Svechnikov then fed Vincent Trocheck down low, who slid a slick cross-ice pass to Aho, who buried it for his 300th career point.
Noticing a pattern. It stands to reason teams would need multiple man advantages to find a rhythm and break down an opposing penalty kill, a sentiment Hamilton agreed with after the Canes’ morning skate Thursday.
“It helps, for sure,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s like anything, when you do something one time, it’s a little harder than when you do it a bunch of times. I think everyone will say that. We’re trying hard on the one power play. You never know if we could get more. But you start to get a little bit better feel, especially against the same team, you start seeing stuff. You can kind of see what they’re doing. That helps as it goes on. I guess it works the other way too, but you try to learn from the first one and get better for the second and third, and hope you have a lot of them.”
Teams might be able to get away with giving the No. 1 power play in the league one opportunity, but, as the Canes’ skill players get in a rhythm and figure out their opponent’s tendency, their man advantage gets more dangerous as the game goes along.
Trocheck keeps it rolling
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Hurricanes trading Vincent Trocheck anytime soon would be a very bad idea, for multiple reasons.
No. 1 is that he seems to enjoy revenge tours. With his second-period tally Thursday, Trocheck has yet to play his former team without scoring, with six goals in six games against the Panthers this year.
The other is that he was an absolutely phenomenal addition. With this year’s trade deadline just three days away, it’s a good time to reflect on what a great pickup has been. After having an offseason to acclimate himself, Trocheck has been exactly what the Hurricanes have hoped for this year, a three-zone player capable of being a force to be reckoned with all over the ice.
Despite missing nine games due to injury this season, Trocheck is tied for the team lead in goals with Sebastian Aho with 16. And even last month’s eight-game absence couldn’t slow him down, as Trocheck hasn’t missed a beat. He’s on a six-game point streak since returning to the lineup, and has at least a point in each of his last 12 games overall, with seven goals and 17 points in that span.
The Hurricanes’ No. 2 center took the time to get himself back to 100%, and has re-entered the lineup and picked up his dominant level of play at the perfect time for the stretch run.
“Obviously he’s been great,” Brind’Amour said. “Those players that are working hard and creating stuff get some of those ugly goals too. It’s no secret, no accident, I guess. He’s doing it right. He created some chances tonight that he didn’t score on. I think he hit the post on one. He’s been great, and obviously that’s been a huge addition for us.”
Alex Nedeljkovic with a “don’t forget about me” game
Much of the Hurricanes’ goaltending conversion this week has centered around Petr Mrazek, and rightfully so. The Czech netminder was excellent in his return from a 66-day absence, with a 28-save shutout in his first game back and 34-save win Monday.
But, Thursday night, Alex Nedeljkovic reminder everyone why there was such a conundrum in the crease upon Mrazek’s return. The NHL’s March Rookie of the Month turned in a stellar game Thursday night for his third shutout of the season, stopping all 24 shots he faced and making several quality, timely saves.
Brind’Amour has said repeatedly the Canes have three goalies they like and want to play, leaving each netminder with only one factor they can control: playing their best when their number is called.
“You can’t control that, right,” Nedeljkovic said. “We’ve got three guys right now who are playing at a high level. [Petr Mrazek] came back and played two games and he was lights out. It’s tough. There’s a reason why you don’t see it very often, or hardly at all, because it’s hard to rotate through. Rod’s been good with us, [Goalie coach Paul Schonfelder]’s been good with us in comminuting and keeping us in the loop and letting us know what’s going to happen. The only thing we can do is work hard in practice and play our best, come game time. All three of us are rooting for each other.
Expect to see plenty more of Nedeljkovic the rest of the season, as he and Mrazek are inarguably the Canes’ best two goalies, and he needs to play five more games to avoid becoming an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
Hurricanes in control
There’s obviously a lot of season left to play, but Thursday night’s win puts the Hurricanes in the driver’s seat for the top spot in the Central. The Hurricanes are now in first place with a one-point lead on both the Lightning and Panthers, a game in hand on Tampa Bay and two in hand on Florida (and two road games left against both). They control their own destiny for securing the top seed, and home ice through at least the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, as well as avoiding a first-round matchup with either Florida team.