RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes will try and extend their season when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series Tuesday at 6:30 p.m at PNC Arena.
One could easily say the better team in each of the first four games of the series came out on the losing end. Carolina held the even-strength possession advantage in Games 1, 2 and 4, but lost all three. Tampa Bay had the edge in Game 3, and the Hurricanes won that one.
That’s how close this series has been.
“I think we’ve been good 5-on-5,” Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook said. “We’ve had a lot had a lot of chances, we’ve had zone time. The difference, obviously, isn’t crazy there.”
The difference in the series has been, obviously, special teams. The Lightning have six goals in 14 opportunities, while Carolina has scored twice in 11 chances.
“Coming into the series we knew that their power play was rolling, and that was a big key for us was to try to stay out of the box,” defenseman Brady Skjei said Tuesday morning. “So we believe that if we can stay out of the box and keep it 5-on-5 that we can play our game and play well. … Specialty teams is huge, and if you can limit their amount of time on the power play, I think that definitely plays into our hands.”
The Lightning tweaked their penalty kill in Game 4, Carolina defenseman Dougie Hamilton said Monday, but the Hurricanes had just two opportunities and really weren’t able to put into practice the changes they made to counteract Tampa Bay’s adjustments.
“It wasn’t a ton of adjustment time,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Monday’s practice. “Usually you run one and then you get another one and now you make your adjustments. But we definitely have to be sharper, for sure.”
The Hurricanes will likely get a boost for Game 5. Nino Niederreiter, who hasn’t yet played in the series after getting injured in practice in between the first and second rounds, practiced Monday and is considered a game-time decision.
Vincent Trocheck, who missed the past two games after being injured in a collision with teammate Warren Foegele in Game 2, is also expected to try out his lower-body injury in warmups and attempt to give it a go. Foegele, hurt in Game 3, played in Saturday’s Game 4 but seemed limited and was mostly ineffective. Brind’Amour said he is “50-50” to play Tuesday.
“Everyone is just going to go on the warmup, and we’ll just see where we kind of stack out,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday morning.
Who can play will not only impact the forward lines but also special teams. Morgan Geekie was on the second power play unit Saturday and practiced with them again Monday. If Trocheck, Niederreiter or both play Tuesday, Geekie would likely be off the power play and perhaps even out of the lineup altogether.
The other lineup mystery is in goal, where Carolina has the option of giving Petr Mrazek a third straight start or going back to Alex Nedeljkovic. Mrazek was spectacular in the Game 3 win and withstood a Lightning barrage in the first period Saturday, allowing just one goal despite facing 14 scoring chances in the period.
But things for the Hurricanes — and Mrazek — unraveled from there. The Carolina goalie allowed six goals in all and couldn’t regain the form that helped the Hurricanes win Game 3.
Nedeljkovic, meanwhile, had allowed just four goals total in the first two games, undone more by the Hurricanes’ lack of scoring in his starts than his own play — though he did allow a bad goal on the Game 1 winner.
Brind’Amour wasn’t ready to tip his hand on Tuesday morning.
“I think I’ll let you guys marinate on the goalie and add a little excitement to the day,” Brind’Amour said with a smile.
Since the team needs to win three straight to extend its season, it could also be several players’ final game at PNC Arena — or even in Carolina. Six players expected to dress for the game are unrestricted free agents after the season, led by Hamilton. Bottom-six forwards Martinook, Brock McGinn and Cedric Paquette all have expiring deals, as does Mrazek and trade deadline acquisition Jani Hakanpaa.
The Hurricanes also have a handful of restricted free agents on which they need to make decisions, most notably arbitration-eligible Foegele along with Nedeljkovic, Geekie and Jake Bean. Andrei Svechnikov’s entry-level deal is also up, but there’s no question the team sees him as an essential piece moving forward.
And then there’s the expansion draft, which could impact one of the aforementioned RFAs (Bean and Foegele are candidates), Skjei or even Trocheck or Niederreiter, depending who the front office decides to protect.
Outside of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Necas, Svechnikov and Nedeljkovic, not much on the roster is guaranteed to be back in 2021-22. Even Brind’Amour’s return isn’t a sure thing, though the coach’s new deal should get done eventually.
The Hurricanes plan, however, is to worry about that down the road.
“We can’t win three right now,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re gonna win one — we’re trying to win one game, and then we’ll see if we can get to tomorrow, which I believe we can.
“I have all the faith in the world in this group, and we play too hard not to have a chance every night, so I feel really good about that.”