With the Hurricanes road to the playoffs being such a trek, just making the final cut felt like a huge accomplishment. It looked like the playoff drought was going to reach year 10 just a few months ago and since New Year’s Eve, the Canes fought an uphill battle to get themselves back in contention and put an exclamation point on it by ending the drought. A fanbase that desperately needed a jolt in the arm is rejuvenated again and there’s a reason to be excited about Hurricanes hockey.
That said, expectations for their upcoming series against the Washington Capitals are pretty tempered. Realism starts to set in when you go on a 30-12-2 run in the second half of the season and still only make it as a wild card team and end up facing the defending Stanley Cup champions to boot. I can’t speak for the entire fanbase, but most fans I’ve talked to are just happy to see playoff hockey again after watching admirably from afar from almost a decade. Although, there are some who would like to see them carry this stretch of play into the post-season since we have no idea what will happen next year. Still, this fanbase just wanted a winning team to cheer for again and they’ve gotten that now.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Do the Hurricanes in this series? If you want to be blunt, yes. Any team has a chance in this post-season, unless you’re facing Tampa Bay (shoutout for not mailing in Game 82). All it takes is a goalie playing out of his mind for a series to completely turn the tables and Mrazek is showing that he might be able to steal a couple games for them. Beyond that, this matchup is closer than your typical wild card vs. conference winner series. It’s also one of the more interesting matchups to keep an eye on because it’s a real battle of quality vs. quantity in terms of how they play at even strength.
I know, it seems silly to call this a close matchup. Washington won the season series, they’re coming off a Stanley Cup win, Carolina is inexperienced with a rookie head coach, they haven’t had a true “starting” goalie all season and you would go through three Washington forwards before you get to the best Carolina player. Why would anyone give the Canes a chance? Again, it mostly comes back to five-on-five play and who can get to their games first. Carolina has built their reputation on being a dominant team at even strength, running an aggressive forecheck and piling up a lot of shots on a nightly basis. It’s been their bread-and-butter for years, but the team has amplified this approach since Rod Brind’Amour took over as head coach. Carolina is averaging about 64 shot attempts per 60 minutes during five-on-five play and owning 54-percent of the attempts. Better finishing (thanks for Nino, Minnesota) and a solid run of play from the goalie tandem of Mrazek and McElhinney has yielded more wins.
Washington, on the other hand, has struggled to carry the play at five-on-five for most of the year although they have improved, ranking as a top-ten team in Corsi For-percentage team since the trade deadline. They also have out-performed their Expected Goals rate according to Evolving Hockey’s model, averaging over three goals per 60 minutes at five-on-five. They’re an interesting team because they have a group of high-end players who could out-perform their expected results and it only takes or two breakdowns from Carolina for them to cash in. With a 4-7 game series, that’s all you need sometimes and it doesn’t help that they’re backed by a lethal power play with Ovechkin standing in the left faceoff circle waiting for one-timers until the league decides isn’t allowed to that anymore.
Factoring in all of that, this series could definitely go either way but I can see why someone might give the edge to Washington. Sure, they might get “outplayed” but they’re a team that can make the most of the few chances they get. It’s how the Penguins beat them two years ago. They’ve also been playing better the past month even if Carolina is the stronger five-on-five team. On the other hand, Carolina has started to see some rewards for controlling the shot clock and I could see them frustrating Washington with a couple of goals off turnovers. There’s also the goalie factor but past playoffs should tell you not to predict these things.
Forecheck vs. Counter-Attack
The main thing to watch for this series is how each team controls play. Washington is more talented, but their mindsets aren’t that different. Carolina’s made a habit of being a fast, physical team that uses their forecheck to win pucks and create favorable matchups in front of the net. Washington is also a pretty physical team, albeit much more skilled and they prefer to attack off the rush.
What we’re looking at here is how often each team enters & exits the zone with control of the puck. Ideally, you’d like to see your team in the upper right quadrant where Washington is but there are teams that still make their living through dump-and-chase play. In the 25 games I’ve tracked for Carolina, they fall into that category. What’s interesting is that it’s mostly by design because they aren’t having any problems exiting the zone with control, they are just more reliant on their forecheck to create chances rather than attacking off the rush.
Does this play into their favor against Washington? In theory, yes. The Caps are a team that doesn’t like dumping the puck out of the zone and looks for that one extra play to get the puck up the ice with speed. They are pretty good at this, as they can stretch the ice out if they need to but their forwards will come back to help carry the puck or lead a shorter breakout. One of their favorite things to do is make diagonal passes across the neutral zone and have one of their forwards skate the puck in while beating the next layer of the forecheck.
Washington has a few defensemen who are suspect to turning the puck over, so Carolina might be able to expose them here if they get to their forecheck. With what we know about failed exits leading to goals against, this could be where Carolina makes their mark in this series. It’s easy to breakdown a team’s structure if they’re constantly under duress and this is has been Carolina’s goal with how they’ve played this year.
The forecheck has been a team-wide strength for this Canes team and it shows in how they’ve defended breakouts this year. Every forward on the team is above the league average in how often they apply pressure when the other team is exiting the zone. It doesn’t always force a turnover or a clear, but the process is there. It’s been a strength of this team even when they carry the puck in. Carolina was able to frustrate the Caps early in their first game last month with this.
This is a dump-in off a line change and Aho is the first forechecker. He forces the Caps to reverse the play and quickly follows the puck to the other side of the ice while Nino Niederreiter follows him. Washington tries to counter this by going across the ice but Williams is there as the high forward to intercept the pass. They can then get to their 2-1-2 forecheck with Aho & Williams forcing a turnover from behind the goal-line. This could lead to a decent chance with better execution, but everything up to that was on point.
Now, there are a few things worth pointing out here. First, the Hurricanes obviously lost this game. Second, the Capitals are prone to turning the puck over but they’re also one of the best teams in the league at breakouts. If you look at the zone exit chart I posted earlier, you’ll see that most of their defense is above the league average at exiting the zone with control, the notable exception being Brooks Orpik. Some players like Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have fallen off this year, but they’ve played the Hurricanes enough that they probably know how to deal with their forecheck. Washington made some notable adjustments in this game.
Being aggressive has its advantages, but it’s also a risk when you’re dealing with a team that has some high-end skill like Washington. Most of their defense is experienced and can make that first pass even if they’re under duress and once they beat the first wave of the forecheck, they can attack off the rush more freely because the neutral zone is more open. This is especially true when you’re facing a team like the Hurricanes who give their defensemen more freedom to join the attack.
Dougie Hamilton actives from the blue line and tries to create a chance off a rebound. Carolina is being kind of risky here because there’s no high forward covering the point for him and they are banking on either one of their guys scoring on the rebound, or that one of the forwards will be able to get back before things go awry. Once the play dies, Tom Wilson flies the zone and the one forward high in the zone for the Canes does his best to run some legal interference on Ovechkin. It doesn’t work and the Capitals get a 2-on-1 break with Andrei Svechnikov trying his hardest to get back into the play.
If there is anything that can cause a game to slip away from the Canes, it’s things like this and you can look at it from a couple angles. First, they had a defenseman pinch with the high forward not doing a good enough job to cover his point. Second, all the pinching defenseman did was send a soft backhander off the goaltender in hopes that they could score off the rebound. It’s something that has worked for them at times this year, as illustrated in Micah Blake McCurdy’s series preview, but there is a lot more Hamilton could do here besides send a backhander off the goalie. Maybe have him circle the net more and look for a pass instead? Inefficient offense is something that has plagued Carolina for years and while it has gotten better this year, you still see some bad habits creep in, especially when the Canes are trailing.
When the Canes get to their game, however, they tend to play a little smarter in the offensive zone. Hamilton, in particular, is an interesting case because there are games where he dominates and is the best player on the ice for either team. He’s a perfect defensemen for how this Canes team wants to play because he takes a lot of risks and is usually the first one back in the play if he makes a mistake that leads to a rush the other way. Mistakes don’t appear to bother him and when he is on, Carolina can compete with any team.
This is using the forecheck to create a more dangerous chance. Hamilton immediately joined the rush once the Hurricanes won the faceoff and made a play at the line to create the initial entry. Williams and Aho took over after that, but Hamilton gave them some favorable numbers at the blue line and created the entry in the first place. It’s a decent example of how a back can contribute to transitional play even if he’s not the one breaking the puck out.
The other way Carolina has involved their defense on the forecheck is moving the puck low-to-high to create more space in front of the net. Low-to-high plays (i.e point shots) are not an efficient way to go about business if you’re looking to score, but Carolina has had trouble creating passing lanes from behind the net and across the slot, so they’ve had to look for other ways to open up space. One way to do this is moving the puck to the center up the ice up high and having the defense activate to potentially get to the rebound.
With the Caps playing a man-to-man defense, moving the puck around quickly like this can break down their coverage and Brett Pesce does a great job here of trying to break free. Nicklas Backstrom stays with him the entire way and is able to disrupt the chance, but the design here wasn’t a bad idea. Also shows the advantage of Pesce playing on his off-side with Faulk, as it’s a more dangerous chance for him coming from that angle. Ideally, you want the Caps to start noticing this more and hopefully that opens up some more passing lanes lower in the zone, especially from behind the net. Hockey is such a read-and-react game that this might get lost, but maybe the coaches pick this up and the Hurricanes can start to create more dangerous chances once Washington starts to cheat towards the defense.
What makes Washington a dangerous matchup is they have some players that I like to call “system breakers.” Basically, it’s another word for a superstar talent who can change the complexion of the game with just one shift. Ovechkin on the power play is the obvious one, but the guy I want to talk about here is Evgeny Kuznetsov. He has 72 points but by some metrics, he isn’t having a great season. He’s a negative possession player and is having a dreadful season defensively going by Evolving Wild’s RAPM metric. However, he has been a thorn in Carolina’s side this season and he is capable of making a play or two that could put the Hurricanes in a hole. This is especially true when you consider his playmaking ability.
High danger passes are passes from behind the goal line or a pass that traveled across the slot. Kuznetsov is one of the best players in the league at completing those plays and it’s something the Hurricanes need to be conscious of. I mentioned earlier that the Caps are a team that might be able to outperform their Expected Goals rate and Kuznetsov exemplifies that. He is one of those players who might be getting hemmed in for an entire game but it only takes him getting one shift where he breaks free for him to change the outcome of the game. Carolina found this out the hard way in their first matchup where he found TJ Oshie for a beautiful cross-ice pass to put the Caps up 1-0 and more recently in the rematch at home.
Here’s what the Caps breakout looks like at its most dangerous. Kuznetsov beats the first wave of the forecheck and notices how the Canes flood his side of the ice in hopes of shutting the play down before he can get any speed going. He can’t move the play north himself, but he makes a little cut to the left and finds Jakub Vrana with a major step on Micheal Ferland, who burns him for a quick goal. Carolina took a risk by having two defensemen go to Kuznetsov’s side of the ice in hopes that Ferland would be able to cover whoever is coming down the left wing. He got caught flat footed for one second and the Caps tie the game.
Elite talent can breakdown the best of structures and this is going to be a going concern for the Hurricanes unless they can match the Capitals speed. They’re fast enough to where they can probably match them on a lot of shifts, but it just takes one mistake to change the series. Carolina is such a solid team that I think they can control the majority of these games, but it will depend on how they handle the Capitals speed when they start to get on the attack.
Capitals Entries vs. Canes Defense
Carolina’s top-four has been pretty good at matching the skating of top-end talents that they can keep them to the outside even if they concede the blue line, but you wish Calvin de Haan was healthy to give you some extra stability there. Washington has been one of the top teams in the league at completing passing plays after carrying the puck in, so they’re not going to waste a lot of their possessions. To counter this, Carolina’s defense is one of the best at forcing teams to dump the puck in and shutting down passing lanes after allowing carry-ins, so it will be interesting to see who wins that battle.
Will an upset happen?
Yes, but Carolina needs to take one of the first two games in Washington. It depends if they can get to their forecheck and not allow one or two mistakes to burn them, which was a problem earlier in the season. They also can’t be afraid of being aggressive even if a mistake happens because that’s how they’ve had success this year. It’s a pretty cool matchup to watch because you have two teams that are going to thrive off mistakes. Carolina is waiting for Washington to turn the puck over while the Caps are waiting for an opening when Carolina gets too aggressive. The Caps have owned the matchup this year, but it’s a different game now. Very excited to see how this series goes.