Category 5: Hurricanes have to ‘be a little sharper’ in Game 3

Hurricanes forwards Mackenzie MacEachern and Paul Stastny control the puck with Panthers center Eric Staal nearby during Saturday’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Hurricanes will try to start to dig out of a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference finals when they play Game 3 against the Panthers on Monday in Sunrise.

Carolina dropped both home games in overtime, with Florida winger Matthew Tkachuk scoring both winners.

1. After giving him Game 2 off, Frederik Andersen will be back in net for the Hurricanes in Game 3.

Antti Raanta performed well in Saturday’s game, allowing just two goals, neither of which he had much of a chance on. But going back to Andersen seems like the right call. He’s posted an in-game save percentage of .931 or better in six of his seven playoff starts and is at .936 for the postseason.

He ranks third in’s goals saved above expected rankings at 5.3. The problem is Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has lapped the field at 17.3 GSAx. Carolina’s goaltending hasn’t been an issue in any way, so who is in net is probably not that big of a deal — certainly not as big of an issue as solving Bobrovsky.

“I know it’s a little bit cliche,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said, “but put a lot of pucks on him, go in front of him (and) find the pucks around you and then, obviously, going to get those seconds and thirds and try the bang those home and making it hard for him. … I’m not too worried. I know that we’re capable of scoring goals even though there’s a great goalie in front of us.”

2. It appears coach Rod Brind’Amour won’t make any changes to his lines to start Game 3. Line rushes were the same at Monday’s morning skate, with Mackenzie MacEachern still on the fourth line with Derek Stepan and Jesse Puljujarvi as the healthy extras at forward.

I asked Brind’Amour after the skate if he expects his veteran players — specifically the ones still trying to win their first Stanley Cup — to step up in what amounts to a must-win game.

“Well, I expect everyone to play their best,” he said. It’s not up to a couple guys. But those guys are definitely — I don’t know if they have more urgency. Like I said when we started this, we always seem to play with desperation. I can’t ask more of these guys, it’s just we gotta be a little sharper, we gotta be a little better, obviously.”

3. Brind’Amour had last change in the series’ first two games, matching Jordan Staal’s line against Aleksander Barkov’s, Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s line head-to-head with the Nick Cousins-Sam Bennett-Matthew Tkachuk trio, Sebastian Aho against Florida’s third line centered by Anton Lundell, and the fourth lines facing off.

Given that Carolina has just one 5-on-5 goal — scored by defenseman Jalen Chatfield in Game 2 — in the series, it’s fair to say the Panthers have won the battle up front. Now Florida will get to dictate the matchups, but Panthers coach Paul Maurice seemed fine with the status quo.

“This series, it’s almost like there’s kind of an agreement between the coaches on the bench,” Maurice said Monday morning. “‘That’s the matchup, OK. Let’s go play.’ … The only way you will start really to focus on the matchup is if you’ve got a problem, a big problem or a huge advantage, and I don’t see that coming in this series.”

4. Aho knows it’s not ideal to be down 2-0 in the series after dropping a pair of games at home, but he also understands Carolina was just a bounce or two from being even or ahead in the series instead of in a deep hole.

“Yeah, that’s very true,” he said. “The fact is we are down two; we’ve gotta be better. But the good thing is I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet in this series. There’s room to improve, and that’s the main focus tonight. It’s just come out here and get our best effort out there.”

The Hurricanes were last down 2-0 in a series in the second round against Tampa Bay in 2021, losing both games at PNC Arena. Aho was blanked in those two games, but he responded with a goal and two assists in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 3.

Carolina looked like it was ready to even the series in Game 4 until Petr Mrazek imploded, allowing three goals in less than five minutes near the end of the second period to turn a 4-2 lead into a 5-4 deficit. That was the Hurricanes’ chance against all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in that series, but they squandered it.

5. The Panthers had the fewest points of any team to qualify for the playoffs, but don’t forget that they won the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago as the top regular season team.

That’s why Eric Staal joined brother Marc in Sunrise — for a chance to win another Cup. He was a high-flying first-liner on Carolina’s championship in 2006, but now he’s centering Florida’s fourth line.

“I wanted to play so I could come back and win and be in an opportunity to be in the best position to win, and me playing first-line center wasn’t going to be that,” he said. “I’ve accepted that, I know that. The reality is I can be a factor and an important piece to a successful team, but it’s in a different role. And that’s OK.”

Staal has been a key penalty killer all season for the Panthers, leading the team’s forwards in shorthanded ice time per game (2:29) during the regular season, good for a tied for ninth in the NHL at age 38. It’s something he did during his time with the Hurricanes even when he was a top-line player.

“I got an opportunity to kill, so you try to be the best you can be at it,” he said. “It’s an important role, especially this time of year when there’s moments where you need a big kill and you need momentum to shift or change. You try to embrace that opportunity and chance and just do the best I can.”