Curtis McElhinney

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Thoughts on surging Hurricanes’ OT win vs. Lightning

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Early on in the 2019-20 season, it’s proven difficult to protect leads against the Carolina Hurricanes. Probably because they always have the puck.

Sunday’s eventual 4-3 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning began in a way that feels fitting to a Hurricanes team that’s been haunted by a good news/bad news situation for a while now. The good news is, again, Carolina hogs the biscuit with overflowing greed. The bad news is that their goalies maybe fall asleep a bit as a result. When Sunday’s game was 1-1, the Hurricanes had fired seven shots on goal, while Tyler Johnson beat Petr Mrazek for Tampa Bay’s goal on what was, to that point, the Bolts’ first SOG.

Speaking of shots on goal, the Lightning couldn’t muster a single one during the second period. Overall, Carolina generated 44-13 SOG advantage on Sunday.

Maybe you shouldn’t sit on leads against Carolina?

The difference between the 2018-19 Hurricanes (plus, so far, the 2019-20 version) and the teams that suffered through an interminable playoff drought is that the latest, Rod Brind’Amour-led rendition “finds ways to win games.”

One wouldn’t fault the Hurricanes if they were a little frustrated after the first period of Sunday’s game. Despite generating a 17-11 SOG advantage (and more than doubling Tampa Bay in stats like Corsi For at 35-17) during the first period, the Lightning finished the first 20 minutes with a 3-1 lead.

Carolina kept at it, though, getting a power-play goal in each of the second period (via Erik Haula) and third (Dougie Hamilton) before Jaccob Slavin fired home the overtime game-winner:

The Hurricanes are now 3-0-0 despite falling behind in all of their first three games …

  • Again, Carolina was down 3-1 in the first period, only to roar back against Tampa Bay to win 4-3 in OT on Sunday.
  • The Hurricanes entered the third period of Saturday’s game against the Capitals down 2-0, yet Carolina ended up winning 3-2 in overtime thanks to Jake Gardiner‘s game-winner.
  • During Thursday’s season-opener, Carolina saw a 2-0 lead devolve into a 3-2 deficit against the Habs through the first 40 minutes. A Haula goal sent that contest to overtime, and then Dougie Hamilton potted the shootout-winner.

Much like in that opener, the Hurricanes broke out the “Storm Surge.” At this pace, they might need to pay Justin Williams to be a consultant on celebrations, because they can only lean on the classic cele for so long …

That defense is getting it done

Defensemen have scored the decisive goals in Carolina’s three wins so far: Hamilton for the shootout victory, Gardiner’s sneaky OT goal on Saturday, and Slavin on Sunday night.

That production extends beyond the most clutch moments, too. Hamilton is tied with Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen for the team lead with four points. Slavin has scored two goals so far in this young season, while Hamilton, Gardiner, and Brett Pesce all have one apiece.

Naturally, they’re doing great work in suppressing chances against, as they’ve doubled opponents in the high-danger scoring chances category at even-strength so far at 38-19 (according to Natural Stat Trick).

A great Haula

Gardiner isn’t the only Hurricanes addition who is paying early dividends.

Haula has three goals in as many games, and big ones at that. Ryan Dzingel got his first assist of the season on Sunday. If James Reimer finds his game this season the way Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney did in the nurturing cocoon that is the Hurricanes’ system, then that would make for another shrewd move. Considering how unrelenting Carolina can be at times, would anyone be that surprised if Reimer ends up rejuvenated?

Hogging that puck

Even Jackson Pollock might think that the Hurricanes are heavy on the paint:

via Natural Stat Trick

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT’s 2019-20 Eastern Conference predictions

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

An historic season ended in a sweep. The Islanders used Barry Trotz’s defensive genius to reach 100 points. Those “Bunch of Jerks” in Carolina became everyone’s darlings. The Maple Leafs once again fell short at the hands of the Bruins. And the Senators, well, in the words of GM Pierre Dorion they were “a team.”

A lot has happened since. Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky went elsewhere in the Eastern Conference. Joel Quenneville is now behind the bench in Florida. Ray Shero and the Devils went all-in to get back into the playoffs, as did their rivals in the Rangers.

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Wednesday night, so let’s take a conference-by-conference look at how we’re feeling about where teams will finish and who will rep the East in the Stanley Cup Final. Playoff teams are outlined in red.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: WESTERN CONFERENCE / STANLEY CUP]

Let us know in the comments how you see both Eastern Conference divisions shaping up.

EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION

SEAN: The one good thing about being swept in Round 1 last season was the fact that the Lightning got plenty of rest this summer. That extra time of thinking about how it all went so horribly wrong should serve them well in 2019-20. Dominating the regular season as they did, Tampa took their foot off the gas in the second half and lost that edge that cost them dearly against the Columbus Blue Jackets. That won’t happen again.

JAMES: The Lightning had a meltdown last year, sure, but this team has shown an aptitude for deep playoff runs during the Stamkos era, and they’re so loaded that I just can’t pick against them. Do I feel good about it considering how foreboding the Atlantic is? Of course not.

JOEY: Tampa Bay has to get over the hump at some point, right? They were swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season and I think they’ll learn from that experience. Oh, and they still have a dynamic roster. Brayden Point is signed, they made small additions like Pat Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk and Curtis McElhinney. This is the year.

ADAM: I think the Washington Capitals have another championship run in them. Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom are in contract years and should be on top of their games, the team is still really good around them, and they had a couple extra months off after their 2018 Stanley Cup run.

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
• NHL Awards, free agent busts, overhyped teams
Breakout players, bold predictions for 2019-20

Maturing Hurricanes eye second-straight playoff berth

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes ended a nine-year postseason drought last season.

This year, their goal: to end an even longer one.

The Hurricanes are looking to reach the postseason for a second straight year – something they haven’t done in 18 years.

Carolina advanced to the Eastern Conference final last season before Boston swept the Hurricanes. That deep run gave a largely young team a taste of the postseason, after only a handful of players had any playoff experience entering that first-round series with Washington.

”It’s a whole new year, so what’s done is done,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said, ”and you’ve got to move on and you’ve got to find a way to be that much better.”

And find a way to avoid the playoff hangovers that have plagued this team in the past.

In the three seasons that followed their three most recent playoff appearances – 2003, ’07 and ’10 – Carolina’s point total has dropped by an average of 26.7 points. The Hurricanes finished last in the old Southeast Division the year after making the 2002 Stanley Cup final, and wound up third in the five-team division after both the 2006 Cup title and the run to the 2009 conference final.

WHO’S HERE

The Hurricanes didn’t make many flashy acquisitions during the offseason, instead sprinkling some solid veterans throughout the roster. They re-signed free-agent goalie Petr Mrazek to a two-year contract, picked up James Reimer as his likely backup, brought in center Ryan Dzingel for two years and gave defenseman Jake Gardiner a four-year deal shortly before camp.

Their most significant move was keeping one of their young stars – Sebastian Aho. Less than 24 hours after Montreal tendered him a $42 million offer sheet, they matched the deal and signed the 22-year-old restricted free agent to a front-loaded, bonus-heavy contract that locks him up through 2023-24.

”I think we assembled another solid team, and I think had some good additions,” forward Jordan Staal said. ”I think we’ll be a team that’s, obviously with Roddy, going to be one of the hardest-working teams, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got every game, and that’s going to give us an edge.”

WHO’S NOT

Justin Williams – for now, anyway. The captain of last year’s team said he was taking a break from the sport to start this season, but left the door open to the possibility of a midseason return. Carolina also traded defenseman Calvin de Haan to Chicago and let forwards Micheal Ferland (Vancouver) and Greg McKegg (New York Rangers) and goalie Curtis McElhinney (Tampa Bay) leave via free agency. They also cut ties with Scott Darling, sending him to Florida in the Reimer trade.

KEY PLAYERS

All eyes will be on Aho, especially during the opener – which, coincidentally, comes against the very same Canadiens team that tried to pry him away. He isn’t worried about handling the pressure that comes with that big contract won’t be a problem, and says he doesn’t set his goals in terms of goals or points: ”I just want to be a better player,” said Aho, who had team highs of 30 goals and 83 points last season.

Keep an eye on Reimer, too. Mrazek and McElhinney were almost interchangeable last season, pairing to give the Hurricanes a solid one-two combination in both the regular season and playoffs. A key question: Can Reimer seamlessly slide into that No. 2 role while bouncing back after a season in which he matched his career worst save percentage (.900)?

OUTLOOK

It’s been a challenge over the past two decades for the Hurricanes to build upon their successes. A key to doing so this season might come with the man advantage. Carolina scored on less than 10% of its postseason chances on the power play – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. Dzingel, Erik Haula and Gardiner should help with that.

PREDICTION

The Hurricanes went 46-29-7 last season and their 99 points ranked second in team history only to the 2006 Cup champions, and their 31-12-2 regular season record after Jan. 1 was no fluke. Aside from Williams, the core of that team – chiefly Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, star-in-waiting Andrei Svechnikov and virtually the entire defensive unit – is back and a year more mature. It might be too much to expect another run to the East final, but a second straight playoff berth is very much within reach.

Previewing the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, and objectively, with far fewer former Rangers. It’s tough to shake the impression that the Lightning’s fixation on Rangers was an Yzerman thing, as Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, J.T. Miller, Ryan Callahan are all out.

Some losses hurt more than others, of course, and some change was inevitable. Really, the biggest omission would be Brayden Point if he misses any regular season games waiting for a new contract.

Also, the Lightning did mitigate some of their losses with another former Ranger: Kevin Shattenkirk. The Bolts lost some firepower this offseason, but still made savvy moves, especially if Curtis McElhinney continues to be a diamond in the rough as a strong veteran backup goalie.

Strengths: With Point, Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos, the Lightning deploy some of the most powerful offensive players in the NHL, and Victor Hedman provides elite offense from the backend. They’ve also done a marvelous job unearthing overlooked talents to buttress those more obvious stars, with Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph being the latest examples. It’s pretty easy to see why Miller was expendable, even beyond cap reasons.

The Lightning also figure to have a dependable, if not outright fantastic, goalie duo in Andrei Vasilevskiy and McElhinney.

Weaknesses: That said, there have been times when Vasilevskiy has been a bit overrated, although last season’s Vezina win was fair enough.

 

The Lightning remain a bit weak on the right side of their defense, and some would argue that this team is too small to stand up to the rigors of the playoffs. I’m more concerned with the former issue than the latter, personally speaking.

Generally, you have to strain a bit to emphasize the negative with this team, though.

[MORE: Cooper under pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Jon Cooper is one of the NHL’s brighter coaches, but he’s not perfect. Could he have settled the Lightning down during that sweep, particularly to maybe keep Kucherov from losing his cool and get suspended? Either way, expectations are high, and blame will skyrocket if the Lightning fall short again. Let’s put it at a seven.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Sergachev, Shattenkirk, and Point.

Remember when people constantly teased the Canadiens about the Sergachev – Jonathan Drouin trade? That mockery has died down as Sergachev’s been brought along slowly in Tampa Bay. Could this be a year of big progress for a defenseman with intriguing offensive skills?

Shattenkirk was a flop for the Rangers, but deserves something of a mulligan for at least 2017-18, when he clearly wasn’t healthy. If handled properly, he could be a budget boon for the Lightning; that said, his potential for defensive lapses could also make it awkward to hang with Cooper.

Whether Point enters the season with a contract or finds his negotiations linger into when the games count, there will be more eyes on him than ever.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and lofty expectations for a deep run.

Frankly, I’d argue that the Lightning should have been more aggressive in resting their stars when it was abundantly clear that they were about 20 steps ahead of everyone else. If they’re in a similar position in 2019-20, maybe they’ll try that out? For many, anything less than a Stanley Cup win will be perceived as a failure for the Lightning. Few teams carry such expectations, but then again, few teams are this loaded in an age of salary cap parity.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Q&A: Auston Matthews on playoff losses, Marner’s contract situation

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CHICAGO — Inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room the video games of choice recently have been Call of Duty, Fortnite and NHL. Now that Auston Matthews is on the cover of NHL 20, the EA Sports game might vault to the top of their power rankings.

The 90-overall rated Matthews is himself a gamer, as are a number of his Maple Leafs teammates.

“We actually have some guys that are pretty good at video games,” Matthews told NBC Sports at 2019 NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago on Thursday. “I want to dog Freddie [Andersen] but he’s not bad. He’s okay. 

One former Maple Leafs found out the hard way how good Matthews is at the NHL game.

“A couple of years ago we did an NHL tournament and I played Curtis McElhinney and I don’t think he’s ever played NHL before,” Matthews said. “I think I mercy ruled him. So that was fun for me, I don’t know if it was fun for him.”

We spoke with Matthews about another Round 1 exit to the Boston Bruins, Mitch Marner’s future,

PHT: What can you take from the way last season ended to help you this year?

MATTHEWS: “I think just the motivation. It’s three years in a row where we’ve lost in the first round, but obviously last two years to the same team, same result, same Game 7. It’s kind of s—– to go through that stuff, but in the end, I think a lot of times it can be beneficial in going through those experiences and learning from them and bringing your best foot forward so next time you’re in that situation you pull through and get over that hump.”

PHT: Do you watch the rest of the playoffs when you’re done?

MATTHEWS: “I don’t really watch the rest of it. I watch the Final and that’s probably about it. I’ll watch a game here and there. For the most part, I just try to stay away. To me, it’s frustrating watching when you could be playing.”

PHT: Sting even more that the Bruins reached Game 7 of the Final?

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, it’s kind of like a what could have been, right? It definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It’s not something that ever really goes away, but it definitely adds some extra motivation going into the season. They’re obviously a good team, we’re a good team, you just never know what could happen — it could happen again. It’s just something that you embrace and look forward to if it happens. Obviously, you want to get over that mental hump that we’ve been in.”

PHT: As Mitch [Marner] goes through the contract situation, has he reached out to you about going through the process?

MATTHEWS: “No, not really. We’ve talked and we haven’t really spoke about his contract or situation. It’s really none of my business. He’s doing what they feel is best for him. For us, as players on the team, and as friends we just hope it works out for the best and that he comes back as soon as possible because he’s a big part of the team and we want to see him there.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.