By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – No one said it would be easy, nor a sweep.
Emotions were expected to run high – it is NHL playoff hockey after all.
Following a second consecutive double-overtime loss on Sunday, the Carolina Hurricanes return home to continue what now comes down to a best-of-three series against the Nashville Predators.
After taking six games of the two teams’ regular-season matchups, the Hurricanes have now lost four of their last six against the Predators – two at the end of the season and two this past weekend.
Close games and losses this series? Yes.
A “coin flip” according to assistant captain Jordan Martinook, a comment he made during Sunday’s postgame presser.
Just a gamble now?
Well, if they’ve now gone from dominating a team to games against it being decided by a coin flip, then things are at risk of falling off.
Though many wondered, no one expected the Hurricanes to get wrapped up worrying about how aggressive – proactively or defensively – they could or needed to be.
After taking the opening two games, 5-2 and 3-0 respectively, last week, they fell short in double overtime by 5-4 and 4-3 margins at Bridegestone Arena on Friday and Sunday.
Amped up playing in the confines of a noisy, 100+ decibel-ringing crowd of 12,000 at PNC, an equally charged crowd at Bridgestone pushed the Predators on to squeeze out their first win on Matt Duchene’s chip shot over keeper Alex Nedeljkovic’s shoulder followed by Luke Kunin’s uncontested charge and one-timer redirect into the net to even the series.
What seemed like the aberration in losing Game 3, the postgame mindset from head coach Rod Brind’Amour and his players screamed of frustration following the second consecutive game of killing penalties – 14 in total over two games.
Following Game 4, the talk all-of-a-sudden changed to still liking their game and a win or a loss now coming down to a coin flip.
Sure, maintaining confidence and reassuring themselves and fans that things are still okay was expected.
After all, they’re not trailing.
But this is not the same team playing under the same circumstances it began the series with leading 2-0.
So, a little trepidation, caution, and critical opinion is fair and justified.
Let the bodies hit the floor
The Predators intended to and started the series with an emphasis on physicality and adding as much chippiness following stops in play at every possible opportunity to do so.
Former Hurricanes forward Erik Haula was a persistent pest during the first two games in Raleigh.
He and his teammates wanted to agitate the Hurricanes, and they did.
Carolina reciprocated with their share of bodychecks and crosschecks, jabs and face washes.
What Nashville couldn’t do in Game 1 was score more goals than the Hurricanes.
With a 5-2 loss it looked as though their strategy was a bust.
However, that was a bit different in Game 2.
They made sure there were multiple altercations after every whistle.
The Preds dug deeper under the skin of the Hurricanes to the point where Carolina took seven penalties throughout the game.
Though they lost, the Preds had sowed the seeds of frustration for the next two games.
The Canes’ problems continued in Nashville as seven minor penalties gave the Preds more than ample time and opportunities to beat Nedeljkovic.
It still remained a close game, one goal either way with the lead changing back and forth.
However, during overtime the Preds changed their focus to just playing hockey.
Very few, if any altercations took place after whistles.
The strategy worked out for Nashville when Duchene netted the winner at 14:54 of the second overtime period.
That formula worked again on Sunday.
However, the variables that compounded Carolina’s challenge to win that game was a stellar performance by Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros, coupled with better structured defensive play that rarely provided open passing lanes.
Yes, the Hurricanes put quality shots on net, numerous opportunities to connect, including a power play in overtime.
But, if you can’t finish the job, then yes, you’re left with hope for a coin flip in your favor.
The odds of winning have now fallen even – Nashville has successfully pulled Carolina back to level.
The slate is cleaned and reset.
Will Canes top defenseman Jaccob Slavin return despite a lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since Game 1?
Maybe, maybe not; but that can’t matter at this point.
If he can’t play effectively, then he can’t play.
Aside from Slavin’s absence, there’s no reason for others not to step up because essentially that is how this team has been built and played all season.
What is critical is not falling into the trap Nashville has set – again.
No more stick penalties and flipping the puck over the glass in a rush to avoid a hit.
Absorb it and drop the gloves if you have too.
Enough with the passive-aggressive reactions after the whistle.
Take care of it and play hockey and move on.
Finally, the key pitfall to avoid is the inability to work at top pace in skating and passing to play “our game” as head coach Rod Brind’Amour has always put it.
Repeatedly falling into that trap then leaves everything to chance.
A coin flip that the Hurricanes are 0-2 in winning so far.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport