The Hurricanes dropped a heartbreaker in the opening game of their second-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 2-1 after rookie goalie Alex Nedeljkovic allowed a soft goal in the third period that turned out to be the game-winner.
Already down 1-0 in the series with Games 3 and 4 set for Tampa Bay on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, Tuesday’s game has a must-win feel to it. Here are five items ahead of Game 2.
Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said following the Game 1 loss that nothing seems to come easy for his team. That’s bad when you perhaps need a night you can coast through, but it can also be good when you’re embroiled in the back-and-forth nature of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s obviously a big deal, Game 1, the fact that we dropped that one,” Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce said following Tuesday’s morning skate. “I personally thought we played good enough to win that game. But at the same time, there’s a lot of series left and we know that. We’ve faced adversity all season long. This is nothing new for us, and we’ll get it done tonight.”
No one needs to have a bigger bounce-back game than Nedeljkovic, who looked the part of a worth adversary to Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game 1 until Barclay Goodrow’s winning goal slipped between his pad and the post in the third period.
“We all make mistakes,” Brind’Amour said after Monday’s practice. “We all have things we wish we could do back. That’s not gonna affect how I think of him or the guys think of him. I think they have a lot of trust in him. And certainly you know he’s gonna battle for us and he’s gonna give us his best. … It’s always about how you respond.”
Speaking of responding, Nedeljkovic only lost consecutive starts once during the regular season, and those losses actually sandwiched a Hurricanes’ win in which he didn’t play. He did, however, lose back-to-back games in Round 1, dropping Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, both in overtime.
It’s also worth noting that outside of his Game 2 shutout against the Predators, Nedeljkovic had his best save percentage in any playoff game in the Game 1 loss to the Lightning — he stopped 28 of 30 shots for a .933 save percentage.
Brind’Amour expects Nedeljkovic to respond.
“I think he trusts himself, and he should,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday morning. “Like I said the other night, we all have things that don’t go our way and little mistakes here and there. What always defines who you are is how you respond to that stuff. So he’ll bounce back, for sure.”
And if he doesn’t? There’s always the option for Carolina to go to Petr Mrazek. But the net, it seems, is Nedeljkovic’s to lose. It would probably take more than simply a loss to cost the rookie his crease.
Vasilevskiy was announced as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy on Tuesday, joining Vegas’s Marc-Andre Fleury and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer in the group of three goalies selected as the best in the league this season by NHL’s general managers.
So how do you score on him?
“That’s a good question,” said Hurricanes forward Cedric Paquette, who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning and their goalie last season. “I think he doesn’t get frustrated a lot. Obviously, like any goalie, traffic in front, lots of shots, lots of backdoor plays. But he’s the best goalie for a reason, and we need to make him uncomfortable.”
Brind’Amour said the approach has to be the same no matter who is protecting the opposing team’s net.
“It’s funny, I go back, I remember the days of Dominik Hasek basically just dominating,” Brind’Amour said of the retired six-time Vezina-winning goalie. “But it didn’t ever get in your head. You just keep trying. … When you don’t get opportunities is when it gets in your head. If you’re getting your chances, you’re being, ‘OK, eventually we’ll get something.’
“We know he’s good. You know, that’s one of their aces. You just gotta keep trying. You keep pounding the rock, eventually you break it down, and that’s the mindset we have to have.”
With Nino Niederreiter likely out for the series, Paquette returned to the lineup in Game 1 just in time to face his old team.
“It’s not something I envisioned doing when I first got traded, but I’m happy to be back in the playoffs and to compete for the Cup again,” Paquette said. “It doesn’t matter where I play, I want to win the Cup. I want to do it with this team this year.”
Paquette was banished to Siberia — er, Ottawa — at the start of the season, a casualty in the Lightning’s cap purge that was later rectified by the injury to Nikita Kucherov that kept him out for the entire regular season. But Paquette was rescued by the Hurricanes seven weeks later, coming to Carolina in exchange for Ryan Dzingel and cap dump Alex Galchenyuk.
Now he’s back on the ice with Tampa Bay, this time on the opposing side. And he thinks he knows his former team’s weakness.
“I think we need to play physical on them. They don’t like it,” Paquette said. “They get frustrated a little bit. So I think if we do that, we’ll be successful.”