The season is over. Following a 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in game five of their second-round series last night, this season ends the same way the past two did for the Canes: with a lopsided series loss to a contender.
While there’s plenty of good to take away from this season, a team that seemed to take another step forward with a stellar regular season bowing out in that fashion in another postseason has to be viewed as a disappointment, and there’s work to be done this offseason.
But for now, we’ll take a look back at the final defeat of the season. Let’s talk about last night.
Special teams the difference again
The Canes losing the special teams battle in this game wasn’t as glaring as it was in game four, but it ultimately made the difference again. The Lightning scored the game-winning goal on the power play, and, in a game they lost 2-0, the Canes’ power play went 0 for 3, and really didn’t generate much.
Special teams weren’t the only reason the Canes lost this series, but they certainly were the biggest. The Canes simply had no answers for the Lightning’s lethal power play, and couldn’t get nearly enough going with their own. In the series, the Lightning went 7 for 18 on the power play, while the Canes went 2 for 14.
With scoring so hard to come by at 5 on 5, especially against a goalie like Andrei Vasilevskiy (more on him in a bit), losing the special teams battle by that margin against top contenders will sink you. And, for the Canes in the last three postseasons, it has.
The Canes’ power play sits ninth among playoff teams at 18.8% in this postseason. It ranked 18th at 13.8% in last year’s expanded playoffs. In 2019, it ranked 14th at a measly 9.6%.
This team simply has way too much talent for the power play to be doing a disappearing act in the playoffs every year, and that’s one of the biggest improvements that needs to happen for this group to take another step.
“Our talent is close, but clearly we got beat in the talent area,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “The big areas, the power plays, the penalty kills, that’s the area we’ve got to get better. So my biggest takeaway is ‘How do we get better?’ We were good all year, but when you get up against the best, that’s the great comparison. To see, ‘OK, wow, that’s how it’s done.’”
Vasilevskiy shuts the door
Sometimes, in a playoff series, you simply run into a hot, elite goalie. While the Canes could have done more to make Vasilevskiy’s life difficult in this series, he stymied them at virtually every turn, allowing just nine goals in five games, with seven of those coming in games three and four.
In the three games in Raleigh, Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals, with the 29-save shutout last night. The Canes simply had no answers for the Russian netminder, who Brind’Amour had high praise for after the series.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s kind of what I said. I’ve seen a lot of goalies that were good, but he’s as good as anyone that I’ve ever seen. I go back to Dominik Hasek and how he affects the team the way they can play. He makes it look easy. Dominik Hasek made it look hard. We had a lot of great looks tonight, and they looked like nothing because he was in the right place or whatever. That’s what I told him.”
Ned keeps Canes in it
The Canes made two goalie changes in this series. After their losses in games one and two, Brind’Amour made the somewhat controversial decision to go from Alex Nedeljkovic, who played well, to Petr Mrazek. It worked in a game three win, but Mrazek was shaky in the game four loss, so Brind’Amour went back to Nedeljkovic.
The Calder Finalist would probably want the second goal he allowed back, but otherwise had a very good night, making several big stops in the third to keep the Canes in the game.
By far the biggest positive of this season was Nedeljkovic’s emergence as the Canes’ goalie of the future (we’ll have much more about his season on Canes Country in the coming weeks).
“All year he’s been huge for us,” said Sebastian Aho. “He played a big part in why we even got this far. He robbed some games for us and at least gave us a chance to win every night, which is all you can ask from your goalie. Even tonight he gave us a chance. He made huge saves and kept us in the game. But obviously we have to score a few goals to win against as good of a team as Tampa.”
Still looking to get over the hump
There’s a ton of good to take away from this season. Nedeljkovic’s emergence. A division title. Arguably the best regular season in franchise history. And the Lightning are, as the kids say, an absolute wagon (that found a way to spend $17 million over the cap for the playoffs). But this season ultimately ended the same as the preceding two for the Canes: in a quick series loss to a Cup Contender.
For a team that thought it had taken another step towards being a true contender itself, that has to be considered a bit of a disappointment. This is still a good team that isn’t far off, but clearly there’s work to be done now, in what will be a defining offseason for this front office with several big decisions to be made.
Stay tuned to Canes Country for much more on the season that was and the decisions to come.