The Carolina Hurricanes squandered their best offensive performance yet as four unanswered Lightning goals sealed their Game 4 fate with a final score of 6-4 Saturday evening at Amalie Arena.
The Canes’ inability to stay out of the penalty box was the recipe for disaster as seven penalties were assessed to the Hurricanes, who shot themselves in the foot all night to see themselves backed into a corner with a 3-1 series deficit.
But let’s take a deeper look into how Carolina lost last night and where they can go from here:
Special teams was the number one reason why the Hurricanes lost last night’s game and has been one of the main reasons why they’re trailing in the series.
Tampa had a 50% success rate on the power play last night, scoring on three of its six chances and have over a 42% success rate on the series, scoring six times on 14 total attempts. That means the Hurricanes’ vaunted penalty kill is operating at just a 58% success rate, which is abysmal.
To be fair though, any team is going to have a hard time countering the Bolts’ uber talented top unit. The movement and fluidity they have not just positionally but in their passing and shooting is insanely hard to track, but if the Canes can’t find a way to slow them down, then their fate was already sealed before the puck even dropped.
On the flip side of the special teams battle, Carolina got only two attempts last night and scored on zero of them, and neither of those power plays even looked competitive, giving the Lightning more momentum than what they mustered for themselves.
Overall the Canes have scored only twice on the man advantage in 11 opportunities, but at least one of those goals was the overtime winner in Game 3. So the power play hasn’t been a death sentence, but it’s just so outclassed by the Bolts.
The fact of the matter is that they just can’t be taking that many penalties against the Tampa Bay Lightning and expect to make it out with a win.
Whether or not you want to blame officiating, the Canes weren’t doing themselves any favors and were putting themselves in positions where officials could make the calls. They have to be smarter and overall just more disciplined.
The Coaching Battle
At some point the coaching staff also has to shoulder its share of the responsibility.
Last series did feel like John Hynes was out coaching Rod Brind’Amour, but that was primarily because Nashville implemented its game plan to primarily counter Carolina’s style of play.
In this series though, Tampa Bay is just playing its game and Carolina has been matching up well in 5-on-5, but it still feels lopsided.
Tampa has the ability to adjust its game entirely whether it’s preserving a lead or challenging to claw back into a game. There is an entirely different mindset with their squad when the scenarios change and it’s something Carolina has yet to be able to accomplish or counter.
Let’s start with the defensive side.
Once vaunted as the cornerstone of the franchise, the Hurricanes’ defense has seemingly started to unravel from the heights it once occupied. The Hurricanes are giving up a lot of high-danger chances and the inability to clear zones has become much too consistent to be circumstantial.
This was an issue in the regular season and has felt just as prevalent throughout the playoffs.
The difference has been that Carolina’s netminders had time and time again bailed the team out when they had given up those Grade-A chances, but they can only come in clutch so many times and we are seeing that in this series.
Is it solely on the players or is there a broader system thing that is impeding the Canes? Whatever the case, adjustments need to be implemented to have a much tighter game defensively.
Now offensively and tied into the first point, the power play has been a giant question mark, sometimes good enough but other times simply awful. If you want to run and gun with the Bolts, you have to be able to score or at the very least be able to sustain some pressure and last night the power play did neither of those things.
And as Brind’Amour has admitted, there isn’t much of a strategy with it.
The players are relied upon to go off of feel and chemistry, but with no real plan or system, we can see why it can swing so much in one direction or the other.
It’s apparent that Tampa and Nashville started to figure out the Canes’ tendencies, and were subsequently able to stifle the Canes on zone entries and disrupt the passing.
It feels like the Canes want to keep doing the same things over and over and hope their relentlessness breaks through, but it would be a much easier time if they made simple adjustments here and there to disrupt the cycle.
This goes for not only the power play, but also at 5-on-5 play too.
And in that same vein of not switching things up came the questionable decision to keep Petr Mrazek in net for the third period.
Mrazek was obviously not having a good game after two periods, but it was still only a one goal game at that point. The decision to keep him in, while consistent with what we’ve seen from Brind’Amour over the years, was one of stubborn faith.
There’s no guarantee that Alex Nedeljkovic would have won them that game, but a change should have been made regardless if only for a potential spark to the team.
Now it’s not to say that the coaching staff has been to blame, but just like the players, they too need to be better if the Hurricanes want to save their season. Whether that’s small adjustments with the game strategy or helping to find solutions for the mental lapses, it’s going to need to be an all hands on deck affair for Game 5.
Where to go from here?
From the get go, it was going to be an uphill battle.
The Canes are facing the defending Stanley Cup champions — who are $17 million over the salary cap — and they would be doing it without their third-leading scorer from the regular season, Nino Niederreiter.
Now they are missing Vincent Trocheck — their second leading scorer — and there’s a question mark hanging over Warren Foegele who was obviously not healthy enough to be effective out on the ice with no shot attempts or hits in Game 4.
So where do you go from here?
The first step has to be going back to Nedeljkovic.
It made sense at the time to go with Petr Mrazek for Game 4. He was spectacular in Game 3 and won the game for the Canes, but he was just not good enough last night. Nedeljkovic will be rested both physically and mentally and it’s time for him to be the one to finish what he started no matter what the end result may be.
And then it’s decision time with the rest of the lineup.
Trocheck can be a difference maker, but that’s only if he’s healthy enough to make that difference and similarly if Foegele isn’t good enough to be effective either, don’t play him. Slot in Max McCormick. He isn’t the answer to their problems, but he can at least offer something with his scrappiness and energy if Foegele is too injured to play his game.
Then there is the defense. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei were split up to limit the exploitation of the third pair of Jake Bean and Jani Hakanpaa and it still wasn’t pretty.
First of all, Jake Bean has not had himself a good playoffs. He has been outmuscled in his own end and his decision making has left the Canes hurting multiple times. A trip to the press box could be good for him to take a step back and watch the game develop from above.
But Pesce and Skjei need to be put back together and the minutes of the top two pairs have to be ratcheted up.
Next is for the team to just all mentally lock in. Stupid penalties are killing them and they are really sinking their own ship.
To squander away a golden opportunity — scoring four goals on Andrei Vasilevskiy, which probably won’t happen again — is death in the playoffs.
There have also been far too many giveaways and defensive lapses by the Canes to just write off about. It’s a major concern as the team has shown they can run with Tampa at 5v5, but these gaffs keep getting capitalized on by the Lightning.
It may be too late to save the season at this point, but the team needs to at least go out fighting until the bitter end and that starts with simply being mentally sharper than the games before.