The problem with upping the degree of difficulty on your playoff run is that no matter how good you are, eventually you’ll push yourself off the cliff. The NHL playoffs are hard enough as is without trying to navigate them like they were a bar bet. The Hurricanes didn’t bother to win a road game in the first two rounds, thinking that they could run the table with their home-ice advantage. But hockey is too weird and stupid to think that something will keep happening because it has in the past. The Rangers are proof of that, given how weird and stupid they are, and they’re dancing off to the Eastern Conference finals even though they suck eggs at even-strength.
But this is what the Canes do every season. They have one of the sharpest constructed rosters in the NHL, with a front office that actually listens to their analytic guys instead of locking them in a closet and only trotting them out to make sure they spelled their names correctly on the website. They find undervalued players, they play an up-tempo system, they try to fill the bottom of the roster with yet more guys who are fast and can play with some skill. In one sense, they do just about everything right.
But in another, they still can’t get it together, and that’s providing a sharpness to either end of the ice. They’re short on genuine first-line scorers outside of Sebastien Aho, with the thinking being that if they pack their forwards with just second- and third-liners their depth will carry the day. And yet when faced with a world-class goalie, the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin this time, it became clear that the Canes didn’t have anyone to pull something from nothing.
And the Canes’ biggest flaw is that they have refused to heavily invest in the net, either. In today’s NHL, you need it all, as the Lightning seem intent on proving to people who won’t pay attention. Carolina thought it had outsmarted everyone last summer by eschewing both goalies from last year, including shipping off impressive rookie Alex Nedeljkovic, and trying to be economical with Freddie Andersen and Antti Raanta.
And sure, Andersen never suited up in these playoffs, leaving everything on Raanta. But if the Canes find themselves pining for what Andersen might have done in the playoffs they would be the first team in history to do so.
So when the autopsy is done on this Carolina team, the big question will be “why couldn’t they win a road game?” Well, that’s a different answer in each series. In the first round, they couldn’t match up Jordan Staal against Patrice Bergeron in Boston, and Bergeron’s line ran wild. That happens, as Bergeron’s line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak have been kicking opponents’ balls off for years.
Against the Rangers, the Canes didn’t really do much wrong, pretty much dooming the Rangers throughout all seven games at even-strength. In only two games did the Canes not have the majority of attempts or expected goals in the series at 5-on-5, and those were the first two which they won anyway.
The only crack the Canes showed was being dumb, and continually heading to the box against a power-play they couldn’t stop. The Canes were the most penalized team in the league, but didn’t think much of it as they also had the best penalty kill in the league in the regular season. But that only goes so far against a team like the Rangers, who are in some ways the complete opposite of the Canes. They’re only sharp ends. They have one big scoring line, maybe the best goalie in the league, and pretty much nothing in the middle.
So giving Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad space on the power-play against your middling goalie, when you can’t hope to match special teams’ production thanks to your anemic power-play and the MVP in the other net, was the exact prescription to get dumped out on their ass. Which is where the Canes find themselves.
It’s the fourth excellent season the Canes will have upchucked, not having won a game beyond the second round in any of them. As always, they keep careening into the postseason with a goalie who can’t make the big save nor a forward who can reach into the fire to retrieve their hopes. It doesn’t matter how much roadwork you do if you can’t land or block a punch, as the Canes keep finding out and yet seem determined to ignore.
As for the Rangers, they aren’t likely to get a look at a backup or worse goalie in the next round, and in fact they’ll get one with two rings plugging his ears. They’ll see a bevy of scorers. We’ll see if they can injure and power-play their way through this test, which is more likely to end up in a ritual killing.
Let’s end on Jesus Sanchez hitting a ball to Mars.
Four hundred and ninety-six feet, and while there’s an urge to dismiss somewhat because it’s in Coors Field, this is still a thoroughly pulverized baseball. Usually it’s only in The Show when you get to load up and catch a pitch perfectly like this, and when you do it’s the kind of thing that brings you right out of your gaming chair. You know it’s bad when even the cameraman is caught off guard by where he has to follow the ball, not conditioned to pan up to the third deck.
At least someone got one over the new baseballs.