For the second game in a row, the Carolina Hurricanes put up a very strong performance at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They only allowed two goals, again, which is all you can really ask of a defense/goalie unit. They doubled up their opponents on shots, marking the second time in the series they’ve gotten the better of that category. And they also surpassed the Lightning’s centermen on faceoffs, again for the second time.
Unfortunately for Carolina, “very strong” does not beat the Lightning right now. Particularly with the way Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing at this moment, anything short of perfection might not be enough. The Canes have learned that the hard way, and now they head down to Florida facing an imposing 2-0 series deficit after back-to-back 2-1 defeats, the latest coming on Tuesday night.
The moment that sealed their doom, to me, came with three minutes remaining in the second period and Carolina down 1-0 while killing a penalty. Marty Necas, who’s been a hero in these playoffs already, intercepted a Nikita Kucherov pass in his own zone and took off on a 2-on-1 with Sebastian Aho. Aho passed to Necas and Necas got it on his backhand, beat Vasilevskiy to earn an open net to shoot at, and then … Necas missed it completely. A dozen viewings of the replay still leaves me without a firm conclusion as to whether or not Vasi’s stick nicked his opponent’s to disrupt the shot, but either way, especially with the pulled-goalie goal arriving at the end, this is the kind of play that could have reoriented a whole season.
Vasilevskiy been one of the most talented young goalies in the NHL ever since he debuted at just 20 years old in 2014. But this past season is right up there with his Vezina-winning 2018–19 campaign as his best yet. And while that year ended in humiliation, in this postseason, he’s been just as much of a brick wall as he was when the Lightning lifted the Cup last year. He’s 6-2 so far, and in the last three specifically, he’s saved 97 of 99 shots on goal. He’ll give you one, maybe two real opportunities to beat him in a game, because he’s only human, but if you blink on those like Necas did, your hopes of beating Tampa quickly evaporate.
“He’s world-class. There’s a reason he’s … What is he? Gonna win the Vezina or supposed to? He should,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said afterwards. “He’s clearly dominant. You’ve got to just keep shooting pucks. That’s it. Yeah, you’ve got to try and get in front of him, but there were a lot of pucks we fired at him that we were in front of him and they were in front of him and traffic was everywhere but still he’s able to get to them. That’s another piece in their puzzle that makes them elite. Just got to keep trying.”
With the Hurricanes down 2-0 against a defending champion that’s healthier than it was last postseason, it looks pretty frickin’ dire for Carolina. Of course, they can’t believe that themselves if they want to try and steal some games on the road and get back into it, and Brind’Amour did his best to spin the pair of close losses in his team’s favor.
“The narrative is going to be, ‘Oh you lost two at home,’ but that’s not the picture that I’m painting,” Brind’Amour said. “I think we played damn good, worked extremely hard, were right there and they got a couple of breaks that went their way. They worked for them, they’re a great team, but I’m proud of our group. How hard they’re working and sticking to what we do. I feel like we’re right there.”
In the regular season, I’d tend to agree with him—playing well trumps winning in all but the tightest of division races. But in the postseason, is there anything more demoralizing than playing a team as well as you can, twice in a row, and not earning any reward for it? Like I said up top, the Hurricanes have very much performed to their high potential in these first two games. Now they have to travel to hostile territory, keep it up, and get lucky on top of that? And not just kind of lucky, but fortunate enough to win four of the next five? Forget the Lightning’s outstanding offense. If Vasilevskiy alone keeps stopping pucks at this level, there can’t be very much hope remaining.