The Carolina Hurricanes are in trouble. There’s no doubt about that.
But they’re not out of this thing yet.
“Sometimes you gotta eat a poop sandwich,” captain Justin Williams said Sunday. “It doesn’t taste good and you have to chew on it for a little bit – and we’ll have to do it for a couple days and get the taste out of our mouths next game.”
Trailing 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final, if the Hurricanes weren’t your underdog before they surely are now. Boston is one of the more successful teams from the East over the past decade with a Cup, two finals appearances and three division titles. And, usually, when they take this kind of a lead in a series they hang on to it.
The last time Boston led a playoff series 2-0 and didn’t win it was in 2010 when they took a 3-0 lead on the Philadelphia Flyers and wound up losing in seven. Only four players remain from that playoff roster: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.
So a lot has changed since that reverse sweep and Carolina surely faces a do-or-die Game 3 Tuesday night. But they haven’t played a home game against Boston yet and it’s not as though they are in uncharted waters here.
These are the reasons why Carolina shouldn’t be counted out yet.
They’ve trailed 2-0 in a playoff series this year already
You only need to look back one month to find the last time the Hurricanes dropped the first two road games of a series.
In Game 1 against Washington, the Hurricanes fell behind 3-0 in the first period and only clawed back in the third period, when they scored twice in a span of about two-and-a-half minutes. Washington put it away with an insurance marker in the final minute.
That was followed up by a much tighter Game 2, which Washington still jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in. Carolina evened it at two, then fell behind again and forced overtime on a power-play goal with five minutes left in regulation. Brooks Orpik scored less than two minutes into the extra frame and the Caps found themselves out in front 2-0 in the series.
The Hurricanes responded with a dominating 5-0 win in Game 3 on home ice and then won Game 4 there as well. They’d even fall behind 3-2 in the series with a lopsided Game 5 loss before winning the last two and eliminating the defending champions.
The story in the Eastern Conference Final isn’t exactly the same, though. Against Washington, Carolina dominated by controlling 58.23 per cent of the 5-on-5 shots and 60 per cent of the 5-on-5 scoring chances in Games 1 and 2, per Natural Stat Trick. That was the story of their seven-game series win over the Capitals – by most measures it shouldn’t have lasted that long.
But against Boston, the Hurricanes have been outshot at 5-on-5 and have earned just 48.1 per cent of the scoring chances, so this time it’s not so simple to expect luck to start breaking their way (although there is more on this aspect a little later).
They have Curtis McElhinney as an option
Petr Mrazek has been a great second-half story for Carolina. He bet on himself with a one-year, $1.5-million contract and his results will likely earn him another look in Raleigh or elsewhere next season.
Mrazek has had some strong playoff games in this run, too. There was the clutch 30-save win in Game 4 against Washington and a 31-save shutout against the Islanders in Game 1 of that series to set the tone. But overall, there have been some holes in his game.
Surprisingly, Mrazek finished Round 1 with an .899 save percentage and was thoroughly outplayed by Braden Holtby. He was injured in Game 2 against the Islanders and since returning for the Eastern Conference Final Mrazek has allowed 10 goals in two games on 52 shots (.808 SV%). The first goal in Game 2, a soft one between his legs, was a poor way to start.
But behind the good story in Mrazek is another in Curtis McElhinney, who was waived by the Maple Leafs before the regular season began and found a comfortable new home as a tandem netminder with the ‘Canes. The first half of his season was better than the second, when Mrazek basically took over, but all of those regular season numbers are out the window. Now all that matters is who has the hottest hand in the present.
McElhinney had to step in for Mrazek to close out the Islanders series and he was lights out. Entering the crease mid-way through Game 2 trailing 1-0, McElhinney stopped all 17 of the shots he faced to come away with a narrow 2-1 win. In Game 3 he allowed just two goals on 30 shots and in Game 4 two more on 28 shots for a couple of 5-2 wins. The 35-year-old career backup left that series with a .947 save percentage, which is a better three-game run than Mrazek has been able to put together so far in these playoffs.
It’s a big decision for head coach Rod Brind’Amour. If you stick with Mrazek and he lets in three or more again in a loss, you open yourself up to criticism for not turning to the better-performing goalie of late. If you go to McElhinney and it blows up in your face, you’ll wonder if it would’ve been any different riding your de facto No. 1.
They’ve been blown out once already in these playoffs
Carolina has been outscored 11-4 in the East final so far and that would look much worse if not for a couple garbage time goals in Game 2. The good news – if you’re looking for it – is they’ve been here before.
After coming back to tie their first-round series against Washington 2-2 it seemed all momentum was in Carolina’s favour. They had just rallied for a couple of big wins at home – one of which was their own dominating 5-0 win – and it seemed the series had decisively turned their way.
Then it all reversed. Despite having favourable shot metrics to that point in the series and even outshooting Washington by two in Game 5, the Capitals earned the better opportunities and out-chanced Carolina 18-12. It got worse as the game went on. The Capitals scored more goals with each passing period and by the end of it the Hurricanes were blown out 6-0 and on the brink of elimination.
They answered back, though, with a big 5-2 victory in Game 6 even after trailing 1-0 and 2-1 in the first period.
“We’ve done it before,” Williams said about how his team will overcome this 2-0 series deficit. “Experience. It’s what we lean on right now.
“I certainly don’t think we can’t do it.”
Regression to the mean!
In a best-of-seven series it’s no guarantee that stretches of good or bad luck will correct themselves. Where strong play with poor results is likely to swing back in a team’s favour over a six-month, 82-game schedule, that’s not necessarily the case over a two-week stretch.
Even still, maybe Carolina will start to have some things go their way. Although they’re being outshot by the Bruins, the Hurricanes have scored on just 7.41 per cent of their shots this series, which is a rate that would have ranked last in the regular season.
That Carolina found its offence this season is one of the two big reasons they finally broke through (the other being its goaltending). From Jan. 1 on, the Hurricanes had the second-best offence in the NHL with the sixth-best shooting percentage and those trends continued in Round 1 and 2.
So far, Sebastian Aho is the only Hurricane with more than one point against Boston. Jaccob Slavin and Warren Foegele came into the series as two of Carolina’s top five scorers and neither have got on the board yet. Nino Niederreiter was a key trade pickup for Carolina in the regular season and was very productive down the stretch, including five goals and 15 points in his last 19 regular-season games. But he’s scored just once in these playoffs – he’s due.
On the other side, Boston is currently scoring on 20.75 per cent of its shots in this series, which absolutely cannot be expected to continue until the end of their playoff run (whenever that is). If both sides “regress to the mean,” it could be a much closer series the rest of the way.
Of course, with no more than five games left in the conference final, a hot or cold goalie on either side would overrule the math.