The first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has already seen two of the NHL’s powerhouse teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning — bow out, while the top two teams in the Western Conference — the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks — have already been pushed to the brink of elimination and are facing 3-1 series deficits.
The Carolina Hurricanes, who drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their Round 1 matchup, are the other team that is trying to play the role of giant slayers.
Despite the 2-1 series deficit they are facing heading into Thursday’s Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), they should have plenty of reason to feel good about their chances at successfully coming from behind and pulling off the upset.
Let’s start with this: The Hurricanes have been the better team during 5-on-5 play from pretty much the start of the series, and there really isn’t much room to debate that fact.
The Hurricanes’ Game 3 win was about as one-sided as a Stanley Cup playoff game can be, while they also carried the play for most of Game 1. There were a lot of encouraging signs to come out of that game if you’re the Hurricanes, despite the loss.
Overall Carolina has owned a 7-5 edge in goals during 5-on-5 play and, in true Hurricanes fashion, have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers for the series, and they really are not very close.
They are controlling the pace, they are dominating the scoring chances, and they have the all-important edge in goals.
The difference in the series at this point has come on special teams, particularly the performance of the Capitals’ power play unit in Game 1.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
It was there that the Capitals power play completely picked apart the Hurricanes and changed the game, not only scoring a pair of goals, but by also doing pretty much anything they wanted when it came to generating shots and chances. In only six minutes of power play time they had 15 shot attempts, generated nine scoring chances, and scored two goals to completely swing the game. If the Hurricanes were going to have a chance in the series that sort of dominance by the Capitals’ power play was not something that was going to be allowed to continue.
And it hasn’t.
In the two games since, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill has done a complete 180 on the Capitals’ power play and shown some pretty dramatic improvement, drastically cutting the number of shot attempts and scoring chances they have allowed. They have also not allowed a single goal, and that has to be the best sign of all for the Hurricanes.
It’s obviously only a three-game sampling, but the Hurricanes have demonstrated so far that they are perfectly capable of carrying the play at even-strength and getting the better of the Capitals when all things are even. It’s when the game turns to a special teams battle that the Capitals seem to be at their most dangerous, and if the Hurricanes can eliminate that advantage their chances of coming back in this series will significantly increase.
Not enough is made about just how good the Hurricanes’ blue line is and just how much they can frustrate opposing forwards in any situation. There is a perception about the Hurricanes that their dominant shot attempt and Corsi numbers are the result of them having a “shoot from anywhere” mentality. But it’s not necessarily about what they do with the puck that drives those numbers, it’s also about what they do when they don’t have the puck. And for several years now the Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams at limiting shots and shot attempts.
They are doing it to the Capitals at 5-on-5 in this series.
And now their penalty kill is starting to do it.
If all of that continues, this series could get really interesting, really fast on Thursday night.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.