Ten years. It was ten years of not being able to put all the pieces together. It was ten years of unfounded relocation rumors. It was ten years of attendance jokes. It was ten trying years that resulted in an acceptance of losing for some inside the organization. It was ten years of just general defeat.
These ten years tested the loyalty and fandom of many, myself included. Enter new owner, Tom Dundon, head coach Rod Brind’Amour, rightful captain Justin Williams, and with them, a revitalized hunger for success. They had a vision, they knew we were close, and they would be the ones to lead the rebirth of exciting hockey in Raleigh, NC.
On April 4, 2019, the Canes defeated the New Jersey Devils on home ice in front of more than 17,000 fans. The win clinched their first playoff birth in exactly ten years. You simply can’t make this stuff up. In game 82, the Canes defeated the Philadelphia Flyers and earned themselves the first wild card spot and a first round matchup with the defending champs, the Washington Capitals.
I think I speak for all fans when I say a tremendous weight was lifted off my shoulders when we clinched. FINALLY. I genuinely appreciate our first round matchup with the Caps. It’s going to be tough, and it sets the tone. But if we manage to upset them, it puts the rest of the playoff teams on notice. The series could get personal, and wouldn’t a rejuvenation of the Canes-Caps rivalry – from the Southeast division days – be fun to see? The Canes are the younger, faster team. The Caps have been there and done that. Without further ado, let’s break it down. What do the Canes need to do to take down the defending champs? What should we be watching for?
For the Canes to compete in this series, Sebastian Aho is going to need to be the impact player we know he can be. In all likelihood, he’ll be matching up against either Washington’s Niklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Who the caps choose to run out there against Aho will depend on where they take the faceoff. In my eyes, Backstrom and Oshie are two-way players and more equipped to defend Aho. But, that doesn’t mean Aho won’t see a steady dose of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He’ll have to best them all.
From the Canes perspective, the Caps don’t have a dominant defensive pair that I’d prefer Aho avoids when we get last change at home. Carlson is good, but I wouldn’t actively avoid him, especially if it’s an offensive zone draw and we can force him to play in his own end. I believe if Aho is given his share of favorable draws, there isn’t a Caps defensive pair he can’t out-work. The way for him to be most effective will undoubtedly be his skating. If he can get to top speed through the neutral zone, he’ll be in good shape. Unless Caps’ winger Carl Hagelin is on at the same time, Aho should be the faster skater on either side of the ice when he’s taking his shifts.
Despite putting up assists down the stretch, Aho concluded the season on a 14-game goalless streak. He missed the net on occasion, and he rang iron on others. General speculation was that he was just getting fatigued down the stretch. Undoubtedly, a lot was asked of him this season. He also had that inadvertent knee-on-knee collision with Niederreiter. That sort of close call is enough for anyone to take a breather. Against the Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday, Aho showed flashes of his usual elusiveness and speed, which was encouraging. He will break out of his scoring slump, without question. Here’s to hoping it’s broken on his first shift on Thursday.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Canes’ bread and butter is their speed and getting to their forecheck. To beat the defending champs, the Canes will have to push the pace from the opening faceoff. One obvious game trend from the home and home with Washington a few weeks ago was that the Caps were totally comfortable slowing the game down via resetting breakouts. You could feel their confidence and composure. If the Canes give Washington time to settle into the game early and reset plays at their leisure, you can forget about it. We won’t beat them in a game of trading quick strikes because that’s never been the Canes’ calling card. The Canes will need to be desperate from the opening faceoff. They’ll need to [shades on] capitalize [shades off] on their speed advantage and outwork the Caps in the corners.
The Canes know their strengths, though. They score more goals as a result of hard work by their cycling than they do gorgeous passing plays. I like to say the Canes have raw talent, as opposed to polished talent like that of the Caps. When I say “raw talent” I mean that there are occasions where the Canes’ strength on the puck outshines their handling of it. Sometimes we’ll see the Canes’ fighting the puck, where as with the Caps, it appears they’ve got it on a string at times. Give the Canes’ young guys two years to reach their prime and that raw talent will graduate to polished. In this clash of contrasting offensive styles, it will be best for the Canes to keep things simple.
One last thing I want to group with the forecheck is how the Canes can beat Braden Holtby. Go to the net. Create chaos. Just by the eye test, Holtby relies on his tracking more so than his reflexes or recovery in the crease. No goalie can stop what he can’t see, so disrupt his field of vision. Like most goalies, Holtby’s glove is stronger than his blocker. Favor the blocker side, and instead of always shooting for tips, try shooting for rebounds off his pads too. It’s going to take second and third chances to beat him.
Blue Line Contributions
On paper, the Canes have the advantage on defense this series. The Canes allowed fewer goals (221) this season than the Caps (248). In addition, the Canes allowed an average of 28.6 shots against per game, which was good for third fewest in the league. With 31.5 shots against per game, the Caps ranked 15th in this regard. The Canes top-4 is very balanced, for they all secured over 25 points on the season. Dougie Hamilton turned out to be the guy we thought he was, but that was expected. The most pleasant surprise was Brett Pesce discovering his offensive flare in the latter half of the season. Generally, Hamilton and Faulk are the two defenders who shoot to score. Meanwhile, Slavin and Pesce are more likely to shoot for effect in search of a deflection or rebound. To beat the Capitals, point shots from all four of them will need to be plentiful and through traffic in front of the net. Don’t just fling it into the Caps wingers’ shins, obviously. But if there’s a lane, get the puck toward the net. For the Canes, it’s a luxury that they have two pairs with which they can effectively create offense. Use them. Show why our blue line carries our team.
When it comes to matching up against the Caps offense, I have two primary concerns. To the best of their ability, the Canes need to have Hamilton and Slavin out against Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. That leaves Pesce and Faulk to take care of Backstrom and Oshie. What we want to avoid is Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury out against Washington’s top players.
Unfortunately for the Canes, it seems Calvin de Haan may be unavailable for the first round. We haven’t gotten a clear update on his status, but it sounds like it’s possible his timetable may even extend beyond the first round should the Canes advance. Enter Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean. Fleury is still looking for his first NHL goal, and this would be an opportune time to do it. Jake Bean had a killer season with the Charlotte Checkers in which he led rookie defensemen in scoring (13 g 31 a). He looks like he has legitimate top-4 offensive defenseman potential. He’ll serve as the 7th defender/healthy scratch, and despite his inexperience, I wouldn’t rule out him seeing the ice this series if one or both on our suddenly questionable third pair underperform.
At 17.8% efficiency, the Canes power play ranked 20th in the league this season. Their penalty kill is at 81.6% and that’s good for 8th in the league. For the Capitals, their power play sits at 20.8% (12th) and their penalty kill at 78.9% (24th). Despite the numbers favoring the Canes, I’m positive I’d rather have this series played at even strength as much as possible. Though the Caps aren’t innovative in trying to isolate the weak side one-timer, Ovechkin’s shot alone makes it an effective strategy for them.
You know the shot is coming. Everyone says, “Just cover him.” The thing about defending Ovechkin is that you can’t glue a defender to him on the penalty kill. That opens up too much space for the Caps’ other skilled players. They have two first power play units. I trust the Canes’ penalty killers, but the fact of the matter is if they crack for even a second, Ovechkin will make them pay. If it’s not Ovechkin, it’ll be Oshie, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Carlson, Wilson, etc. All you can really do is shadow No. 8 and anticipate his one-timer. No one has figured out a foolproof way to stop him yet, but if you do, let me know.
Though the Canes power play has been better of late, I’m still very opposed to getting into a special teams battle with Washington. Generally speaking, the Canes second unit hasn’t been as effective as their first unit. As good as Mrazek has been, lackluster special teams were what tanked his numbers early on in the season. Discipline will be the name of the game for the Canes because the Capitals can hurt you in many ways on the man advantage. The best penalty kill strategy is to not take unnecessary penalties at all.
Micheal Ferland vs. Tom Wilson
Tom Wilson is very well known for his numerous suspensions for bad hits on unsuspecting players. Having a player like Ferland in the Canes’ lineup will help keep Wilson in check. I’m not saying a Ferland-Wilson fight is a sure thing to occur at some point this series, but with how both of them play the game, it’s something to watch. Ferland and Wilson have near identical skill sets. They are the respective centerpieces for their teams’ physical identities.
There are certain players that elevate their game to a whole new level in playoffs. Ferland is one of them. There has been a YouTube video circulating on Canes Twitter that I’ll link at the end of this section. It’s Micheal Ferland versus the Vancouver Canucks from 2015. If nothing else, it will kill a few minutes of your workday and get you pumped up. You’re welcome.
Other than Ferland, the Canes will have to match Washington’s physicality up and down the lineup. That means Staal, Martinook, Foegele, and McGinn will need to throw some hits to make their presences felt. If it happens to turn into a grind, I could see Saku Maenalanen drawing into the lineup. He is 6’ 4” with a little nastiness to his game. Though he’s not been in a fight this season, he just strikes me as a guy you don’t want to mess with. The potential for bad blood in this series is higher than I think most people realize.
This is the time of the season where players you wouldn’t normally expect to emerge and make an impact do just that. Last season for the Capitals on their cup run, it was Devante Smith-Pelley. He played a 4th line grinder role, but suddenly he was scoring clutch goals in bunches.
Every contending team needs their own unsung hero, and it’s no different for the Canes. As much as I want it to be Haydn Fleury suddenly scoring his first goal in dramatic fashion, it probably won’t be. While he’s looked good, he still has occasional concerning missteps in his own zone. I expect the Capitals to attack his side when he’s on the ice. Lucas Wallmark could be the guy to step up for the Canes. He plays a low key, but steady two-way game. He’s played as high as the second line this season. To make an impact in this series, he needs to take advantage of his underrated shot. But, I feel he’ll be preoccupied with his play away from the puck and in transition.
So, who could emerge for the Canes? Warren Foegele. Okay, so I’m sort of cheating with this choice since he started heating up last week, but whatever. The playoffs are about getting hot at the right time. Foegele has that work ethic that just can’t be taught. He is scoring big goals with more frequency. Look no further than his breakaway tally versus New Jersey. The kid never quits on a play, and he has the grit needed for the playoff race. He potted 28 goals in his AHL rookie season, so that scoring touch is there. It’s just been dormant. I think what would help with his consistency and finishing ability would be a shooting coach over the summer. I’m just speculating, but focusing on his shot will help transition his complete game to the NHL level. Foegele is a great example of the aforementioned “raw talent.” The good news is that talent doesn’t need to be refined to make an impact in the playoffs.
I wrote a longer article around the halfway point of the season that detailed how good Mrazek was despite his numbers. Now that the regular season is over, his numbers more accurately reflect how awesome he has been. I fully expect Mrazek to be named the starter for the series against Washington. For what it’s worth, Mrazek has a better save percentage (.914) and goals against average (2.39) than Braden Holtby (.911 & 2.82). They have different goaltending styles though, and Holtby has played more games this season.
If this hasn’t been made perfectly clear by now, Mrazek was made for this team. He knew he had something to prove, and he did that and much more. His enthusiasm is exactly what the fans and his teammates will need to feed off. Obviously no disrespect to McElhinney, but Mrazek is the guy for this playoff team. This team was built to grab this moment.
Prediction and Final Thoughts
All things considered, I expect this series to be competitive and a bit closer than the teams’ recent postseason histories suggest it will be. The Canes should be able to contain the Capitals at 5v5 for the most part. They are great at suppressing high-danger shots, and they keep their opponents to the outside while limiting slot chances. As mentioned before, the Canes’ goal should be to keep this series at even strength.
The Capitals will get good looks though, and that’s inevitable. As a team, they favor quality over quantity because they have several high-end finishers on their roster. Look for most of their chances to come off of weak side one-timers and high percentage slot wrist shots. As always, watch out for Kuznetsov’s sneaky little no-look pass from below the goal line.
The Canes will be more dependent on quantity of chances, as per usual. They’ll be looking for blue line activation off their initial rushes. Ideally, they’ll get down low and grind out a consistent cycle game. Since they lack seasoned finishers, it will be important for the Canes to get to the front of the net and generate second and third chances. It’s all about speed for the Canes.
While the regular season series favored the Caps, the Canes were never completely out of a game. If the Canes have shown one thing over the course of this season, it’s to never count them out. The race for the cup is a brand new season, after all. My heart is telling me Canes in 7 games. But, my brain is saying Caps in 6. Anything can happen, but the latter is a safer bet, if you’re a bettor.
Even if the Canes were to get swept by the Capitals, it’s not what I would remember most about this season. Our goaltending was finally the backbone we needed it to be. We got to watch Brind’Amour grow into the head coach we all knew he could be. Teuvo Teravainen signed a 5-year contract extension. Andrei Svechnikov carved out a second line role that he should find himself in next season. In landslide fashion, we won a significant player-for-player trade when we flipped Rask for Niederreiter. We brought in character guys like Jordan Martinook. We persevered when Jordan Staal battled through his concussion. Dougie Hamilton showed why he was the main piece in the offseason trade with Calgary. And for all of these awesome reasons and more, the team and its fans interacted in a way they hadn’t since 2009. The post-game celebrations got us labeled a “Bunch of Jerks” and we ran with it and expanded our fan base. Regardless of how it ends, this was a significant season for the Canes.
The Carolina Hurricanes are a visible and relevant playoff team again. I’ve already secured my tickets for game 4 and, hopefully, game 6. Ten years, man. I have a good feeling that the next ten years will be defined by success for the team and more frequent playoff ticket purchases for myself. But for now, let’s focus on the Washington Capitals and round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. GO CANES!