The pace was fast, the talent was all over the ice, and the drama was ramped up until the dying seconds of the third period.
While the Hurricanes weren’t the team that prevailed, there was plenty of good that came from the series opener. Unfortunately, one lowlight has overshadowed all the highlights of the game.
Let’s talk about last night.
An Electric Start
The best period that either team had on Sunday was Carolina’s first period, where they drove offense at an excellent rate and generated more than enough chances to crack the scoreboard, but they just couldn’t get one by Andrei Vasilevskiy.
In retrospect, not getting a goal in the first period was a big win for the Lightning and probably went on to be the difference in the game, outside of one other glaring moment in the third period. The Hurricanes had two power-play chances and came up empty on both tries and outpaced the Lightning 4-1 in high-danger shot attempts at 5-on-5, including Sebastian Aho’s chance from the slot that got gloved down in prime Vezina fashion by Vasilevskiy.
While Aho’s chance was the one that stood out, the highlight of Carolina’s forward group was undoubtedly the Vincent Trocheck line. Nino Niederreiter missed game one and is highly unlikely to return in this series, which meant that Jordan Martinook was bumped up next to Trocheck and Martin Necas.
That trio was outstanding all night and led the charge for the Hurricanes’ offense at 5-on-5. Martinook did a very admirable job at replacing Niederreiter’s puck-retrieving and they certainly didn’t lack in the way of generating scoring chances. Necas and Trocheck’s on-ice xGF of 1.11 on Sunday was the best among all Carolina and Tampa Bay skaters.
Getting one by Tampa’s world-class goalie in the first period would have been a massive win and it would’ve put the pressure on the Lightning moving forward. Instead, the Bolts were given a break and an opportunity to score the first goal in the second period, which they did.
Finding an Answer for Vasi
The biggest thing going into game two is finding an answer for Vasilevskiy, and the solution feels pretty obvious.
They have to make his job tougher.
While the Hurricanes piled up some quality chances from high-danger areas, too many of them came with little to no traffic in front of him. If he can see the puck, he will stop it 99 out of 100 times*.
*Statement not supported by actual statistics, but it feels about right.
You don’t need to look any further than Carolina’s only goal of the night to get an idea of what needs to be done in order to get the puck in the net.
Jake Bean from downtown!— y - Canes Country (@CanesCountry) May 30, 2021
The Hurricanes and Lightning are tied up in game one! pic.twitter.com/OBge93Obk5
The shot appeared to have deflected off of Anthony Cirelli in the high slot on its way to the back of the net, and the Hurricanes had Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast in the vicinity.
That’s really the only thing that Carolina needs more of moving forward. They did a great job of chasing down pucks, moving it low to high and going to work in order to get some quality opportunities. Unfortunately, all of that hard work will go unrewarded if they don’t get in shooting lanes and make life difficult for Vasilevskiy.
Despite the Hurricanes’ quality team effort in game one, only one thing will be remembered from the game, and that is Alex Nedeljkovic’s bad goal against in the third period.
He misplayed his angle to the right goal post, left a ton of room open along the ice, and allowed a low-risk shot from Barclay Goodrow to sneak on by him. That was the game-winning goal.
That sucked for many reasons.
For starters, it nullified a really strong game-one effort from the Hurricanes. You could argue that Carolina deserved to win the game, but that tally put them behind the eight-ball in the late stages of the third period and they just couldn’t recover in time.
It also hurt because Nedeljkovic had played an outstanding game to that point and held the fort very well amidst Tampa’s second-period rally. They had chances to build on a 1-0 lead, but Ned didn’t allow them to do so.
His first NHL playoff run has been very impressive to this point and he has made so many huge saves to keep his team in games and get them wins, but there have undoubtedly been a handful of moments that have separated him from playing the way that a guy like Vasilevskiy plays.
That isn’t a knock on Nedeljkovic, though. I’m not sure you could ask for more out of a rookie goalie on the big stage. Every time he has made a tough mistake, he has bounced back in a big way and put the mistakes in the rearview mirror instantly. He’s mentally prepared for this moment, and you can be sure that he will deliver an outstanding game-two performance.
Game one really wasn’t about the bad moment from the Nedeljkovic. It was about the excellence on display from Vasilevskiy, Carolina’s great team effort, and a game that could have very easily gone the other way.
That’s what the mentality should be moving to game two. The Hurricanes are more than capable of beating this Lightning team, and they have all the pieces they need to do it.
They just have to make it happen.