There were stretches, though few and far between in Game 2, where the Hurricanes looked like the Hurricanes.
They got into the postseason on the strength of incredible possession hockey. Over the full regular season, they were top-two or top-three in just about every 5-on-5 possession metric and no one was better in expected goal margin.
Rod Brind’Amour’s group generated so much quantity and quality in attack that the ‘Canes racked up almost 20 additional expected-goals offensively, and underperformed that level by a wide margin until Nino Niederreiter showed up.
Meanwhile, for as much credit as Barry Trotz got for tightening up the Islanders’ defensive system, the Hurricanes only allowed 0.63 more expected goals in all situations over the full 82. The only difference was they didn’t get .925 goaltending all season.
But watching Game 2 on Sunday afternoon, you had to be struck by the fact that the Islanders were grinding the Hurricanes into dust. It wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t fun for the visitors, but Brind’Amour’s preferred high-tempo style hasn’t been evident at all. To that end, you have to say Trotz is imposing his will; a low-skill team can only get by in the playoffs by trying to limit the impact of the other team’s skill, and for the most part they’re getting what they wanted.
Three goals against in 124 minutes is a great outcome against a club that generated more expected goals-per-60 than any team since 2007-08. The problem, of course, is that if you’re trying to win a lot of 2-1 games, you’re running a real risk that you’re going to be on the wrong end of those results. The Islanders are hitting everything that moves and if that’s their plan, then at least that aspect of it is working.
But you gotta ask, to what end? Because while Trotz would definitely be making a big mistake if he tried to run and gun, the Hurricanes — depleted as they may be — aren’t making the kinds of mistakes the Penguins did in their own end, aren’t turning the puck over, and so on. As such, maybe you need a new strategy.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot with these first two games, especially with how much officiating has weighed on everyone in these playoffs, is that the style of play being unceasingly punishing might not help the Islanders. If both teams are content to play physical hockey, refs are more inclined to put their whistles in their pockets. That wasn’t Washington’s approach against Carolina, and that series saw 49 power plays in seven games. The Capitals went 25 percent on the man advantage, scoring on 6 of 24. So far, the Hurricanes have seven power play opportunities to the Islanders’ six.
While the Islanders perhaps don’t have the skill to do what the Caps do — most notably, say, at the Ovechkin Spot — they might want to at least try to dial back the outright physicality and try to draw more penalties the old-fashioned way. Even apart from the inherent silliness of leaving the only guy on the team with elite-level skill off the first power play unit until Game 2, Mat Barzal (the lone Islander to clear 60 points this season) has the team’s only goal in two games. And while even that didn’t go in off his stick, well, you need the good bounces and skill guys generate bounces for you.
Maybe the argument against taking the physicality down a notch or three in pursuit of more penalties drawn is that the Hurricanes have more guys who can draw them reliably. Carolina was 11th in power play opportunities in the regular season, to the Islanders’ 22nd.
The broader point is that the Islanders invited Carolina to play their style and Brind’Amour and Co. have obliged them despite the mountain of injuries endured along the way.
At 5-on-5, these teams are separated by a single shot attempt through 97 minutes of hockey, and the pace has been slow going. The Islanders have undoubtedly held sway in terms of quality of shots at that pace, as you might expect given their experience with the style, but they’re looking at the wrong end of a two-game deficit — meaning they have to win four of the next five to advance.
You can stop me if you’ve heard this before, but what if the Hurricanes are sacrificing quantity for quality, and relying on a previously mediocre goaltender they picked up off the scrap heap to make the difference? I’m just saying it’s possible.
And if that’s the case, Trotz might need to come up with a new plan sooner than later.
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