Over the past few days, Carolina captain Justin Williams has busted out metaphors that compared his team’s play to an, ahem, excrement-filled sandwich and what’s left of the Hurricanes’ playoff run to a toothpaste tube that is on its last legs. What he and his Carolina teammates haven’t been able to pull out, however, is a win in any of the three games of their Eastern Conference final matchup against the Boston Bruins.
Thus, as they enter Game 4, the Hurricanes do so with the odds of a series victory stacked so heavily against them that Bruins faithful would either be lying to you or to themselves if they said they weren’t already thinking about which of the San Jose Sharks or St. Louis Blues they would rather face in the Stanley Cup final. (And the answer is the Sharks. It has to be the Sharks for Joe Thornton-related reasons, right?) That’s the bad news.
The good news, though, is this series isn’t over until the two teams exchange handshakes, back-slaps and well wishes for the final. And while no team has ever come from behind to erase a 3-0 deficit and win the series in either conference final, there’s no time like the present for the Hurricanes to make some history.
So, how does Carolina make the impossible a reality? Here are five keys moving forward:
SORT OUT SPECIAL TEAMS
What we knew entering the series was that the Hurricanes’ penalty kill was a complete and utter mess. No team that played into the second round had a lower percentage than Carolina, who scored only four times with the man advantage and a 10.5 percent success rate. The kicker here is that heading into the conference final, the Hurricanes had ample opportunity to do damage on the power play. Only the Sharks, Blues and Colorado Avalanche had more power play opportunities than Carolina after Round 2, and each of those teams played at least one more game than the Hurricanes. So, really, it’s not all that surprising that Carolina has been atrocious still with the man advantage, scoring just once on 12 power plays in the third round.
It is, however, remarkably stunning how poor the Hurricanes have been on the penalty kill. I mean, wow. Carolina hadn’t been great shorthanded throughout the post-season, their 75 percent clip tied for the worst among all conference finalists, but the Hurricanes’ penalty kill has been downright laughable against the Bruins. They have only completed seven of the dozen kills with which they’d been tasked. That’s a 58.3 percent clip for those without a calculator.
If Carolina is going to get anything going in this series and what appears to be certain elimination, it starts with surviving the special teams game. The Hurricanes don’t even necessarily need to be good. They just need to be far better than they have been.
BREAK BRUINS’ DEFENSIVE SHELL
It was noted around these parts ahead of Game 3 that the Hurricanes’ issues went far beyond goaltending despite that being the hot-button issue as the series shifted to Carolina, and with good reason. All season long, the Hurricanes have built their game on getting to prime areas and out-generating the opposition when it comes to scoring chances. Case in point, Carolina finished the season third in scoring chances, first in high-danger chances and tops in the league in expected goals for at 5-on-5 in large part due to their ability to get to the so-called home-plate area in front of the opposing net.
In this series, though? The Bruins have absolutely owned the middle of the ice in their defensive zone, and Carolina has been unable to break through against Boston in the way they did against either the Washington Capitals or New York Islanders in the two matchups prior. Through three games, the Hurricanes have a 5-on-5 scoring chance percentage of 46.4, high-danger scoring chance percentage of 38.6 percent and an expected goals for percentage of 41.8. Not great!
The good news is Carolina is fresh off of its best game of the series and actually looked threatening for extended periods for the first time since the third round began. The Hurricanes have a monumental task ahead of them, but continuing to put the Bruins’ defense under pressure and pinning Boston in its own end can help Carolina begin to chip away.
THE ‘FULL 60’
Again, Game 3 was the first time the Hurricanes looked threatening for extended periods, but now it’s time for Carolina to take that one step further and look like a team that can put pucks in the net for longer than five minutes at a time.
The first period of Game 3 was the ideal period for the Hurricanes, who carried nearly 70 percent of the shot attempts at five-a-side, nearly 80 percent at all strengths and ended the frame with a 20-6 shots advantage. That’s exactly the way Carolina needs to play, and they need to do so for an entire affair, put Boston on its heels and continue to press until something, anything, ends up in the back of the net. And once that happens, the Hurricanes can’t take their foot off the gas. They need a convincing win, if only to prove to themselves that they can hang.
In other words, and in coach speak, the Hurricanes need to play a full 60-minute game. Unless it goes to overtime, at which point Carolina will need to play a full 80, or full 100, or full… you get the point.
Easier said than done, but starting to put some doubt in Tuukka Rask’s mind might be the only way the Hurricanes turn this thing around. As it is, the Bruins keeper has been out-of-his-mind excellent throughout the post-season. He’s currently leading the post-season with a .939 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average through 16 games, and his numbers at 5-on-5 – where he boasts a .943 SP, 1.73 GAA and 6.3 goals-saved above average that laps the field – are bonkers.
So, now’s the time for someone, anyone, to start to get into Rask’s head. The Hurricanes will need to walk a fine line when it comes to stirring the pot in front of the Bruins’ crease, especially given their aforementioned penalty killing woes, but Carolina needs to start getting more traffic in front of Rask and taking away his eyes at every turn. So far, Rask has stopped virtually everything he’s seen through three games of the Eastern Conference final, so the solution is ensuring he can’t see a thing.
Once (or if) Rask cracks, too, the Hurricanes have to pour it on. There’s nothing that changes a series quicker than a red-hot goaltender and nothing that can make one slip away quite like a floundering keeper. Right now, Rask is the former. Carolina needs to find a way to turn him into the latter.
MIRACLES FROM ‘MAC’ OR ‘MRAZ’
Given Carolina’s play in the first period of Game 3 and the pressure the Hurricanes put on Rask in the late stages of the contest, it wouldn’t be all that misguided to classify Tuesday’s victory as a so-called “goalie win” for the Bruins. Regardless of what you’d call Boston’s Game 3 victory, though, Carolina absolutely needs their goaltender – be it McElhinney or Mrazek – to steal a game or two if the Hurricanes are to have any chance of completing the reverse sweep.
It’s not as though that’s an impossible feat, either. Granted, the Islanders don’t have the offensive firepower to match the Bruins, but Mrazek stood on his head in Game 1 of the second round series against New York and posted a 31-save shutout victory in a game that needed overtime to find a winner. McElhinney was also excellent in the latter half of that series, out-duelling Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner through the final two and a half games of the four-game sweep.
Now is the time for either McElhinney or Mrazek to step up and single-handedly win some games, too, and that will be particularly important if the Hurricanes can’t check any of the first four boxes on this list. As noted above, a goaltender can alter a team’s playoff fortunes in a hurry. Rask has already done his part for the Bruins. McElhinney or Mrazek will now have to answer in kind.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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