The New Jersey Devils won Game 3 against the Carolina Hurricanes in an 8-4 rout, as their offensive stars found their speed and room to operate in ways they simply weren’t allowed to during two losses in Raleigh.
Will that continue? Or can the Hurricanes take Game 4 in Newark on Tuesday night (7 ET, ESPN) to bring a 3-1 series lead back home, where they’ve been the best defensive team in the playoffs (1.80 goals-against average)?
Here are four keys to Game 4 between the Hurricanes and Devils, the latter of whom are trying to rally from a 2-0 deficit for the second straight series.
Which goalies will show up?
We mean this literally and figuratively.
Hurricanes goalie Antti Raanta returned to practice on Monday after missing two games because of illness. Coach Rod Brind’Amour wasn’t sure whether he would play in Game 4. “Hopefully. It would be nice to have some options,” he said.
That’s because Frederik Andersen was pulled in Game 3 after giving up four goals on 12 shots in 20:53. According to Evolving Hockey, he had a minus-2.24 goals saved above expected. After Andersen gave up only one goal in each of his previous three playoff games, he wasn’t good in Game 3.
But that doesn’t mean Raanta gets the call if he’s healthy. Keep in mind that Raanta is a different goalie at home than on the road. Away from Raleigh, Raanta is 1-6 in his past seven games, with an .884 save percentage. At home, he’s 8-1 in his past 11 games with a .943 save percentage.
“We know he’s a good goalie who’s got great experience,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said of Raanta. “We’re going to have to work hard and find holes if he plays.”
Ruff has his own goaltending questions to answer.
Vitek Vanecek started Games 1 and 2 against the New York Rangers, and was lit up. Ruff switched to rookie Akira Schmid, who confidently backstopped their rally to win the series in seven games. Schmid gave up seven goals on 36 shots in two games in Raleigh and Ruff flipped back to Vanecek for the Game 3 win.
All signs point to Vanecek getting the start again in Game 4, but he also posted a negative goals-saved above expected (minus-1.14) for the game. Granted, the Devils hung him out to dry on a couple of short-handed chances, and he didn’t stop a Jordan Martinook penalty shot. But outside of a few saves, Vanecek didn’t look incredibly sharp, which was something he acknowledged.
“Akira took care of the first round. He was really good. There wasn’t a thing he did bad,” Vanecek said. “He had two tough games [against Carolina] and they gave me an opportunity. I wasn’t great [in Game 3], but the win counts and that’s what we need.”
Both the Devils and Hurricanes will seek better goaltending in Game 4.
The Devils and Hurricanes are playing the only second-round series without a multiday break.
While Carolina bought some time to recuperate after eliminating the New York Islanders in six games, that was a physical and grinding series. The Devils, meanwhile, went seven games with the Rangers and then immediately hopped into their series with the Hurricanes. New Jersey has played every other day since April 27, a trend that will continue until this series ends.
Of course, having to worry about energy expenditure means you’re still playing in the postseason, which suits Ruff just fine.
“It’s a great difficulty to have,” he said. “Going through a playoff run and finding out how much is going to be enough.”
For Carolina, flush the loss
Brind’Amour labeled Game 3 as a “weird” one, and he’s not wrong. Lots of goals. Lots of penalties. An uncharacteristically bad start for the Hurricanes, who fell behind 3-0 just 13 minutes in, despite usually playing tight defensive first periods.
“It’s never fun to come off of a game like that,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. “But all you can do at this point in the year is flush it. To spot them like we did in the first period like that is never a good thing.”
Brind’Amour said it was a combination of things that allowed the Devils to find their speed game in a way they couldn’t in Raleigh.
“In Games 1 and 2, everything went our way. Maybe it went their way [in Game 3],” he said. “But like I said, they were on it. They were better than we were.”
Brind’Amour, who celebrates his five-year anniversary as Carolina coach on Tuesday, likes to preach about “the stress game” to his players: Putting their opponents in a state of panic with the tenacity of their play. It’s what the Hurricanes did so well at home in Games 1 and 2, using their forecheck and a puck-hounding defense to frustrate the Devils. It’s what was missing in Game 3.
“They got more pucks in deep,” Slavin said. “We didn’t and we couldn’t establish our forecheck.”
That’ll be paramount for the Canes in Game 4.
For New Jersey, the stars must shine
The Devils’ offensive breakout in Game 3 was a story of determination and deployment.
No one was more upset than captain Nico Hischier after the first two losses on the road. “We should be really pissed off right now,” he said after Game 2.
Hischier played like he was trying to prove something in Game 3. He had eight shot attempts, four shots on goal and a goal scored at 5-on-5. That included four rebound attempts and two rebounds created. He was an absolute force in Game 3, and the Devils took their cue from their leader.
For Jack Hughes, who had two goals and two assists in Game 3, the story was deployment. Carolina has one of the best defensive centers in the NHL in Jordan Staal. Postseason after postseason, he has smothered the other team’s best offensive players when Brind’Amour gets his matchups in Raleigh. On the road, opposing coaches make it a point to get their stars as far away from Staal as possible.
In Game 1, Staal shared the ice with Hughes for 9:25. In Game 2, it was 10:40. But in Game 3, Ruff got his young star away from Staal, who shared the ice with Hughes for only 3:40.
The Devils saw many of their star players hit the score sheet in Game 3 — heck, even Timo Meier registered his first point of the playoffs with a first-period goal. Ruff said it’s possible some weight will be lifted off his players.
“You get automatic relief. You can talk about not feeling the pressure, but you do. Every game is such a big game and you want to be a difference maker,” he said. “Every guy has a tough stretch. It just gets magnified in the playoffs.”
Not many are expecting another 12-goal game between the Devils and Hurricanes. Game 4 should return back to a more tightly played battle. Regardless of whether the Hurricanes get their matchups or play better defense in Game 4, Ruff said the Devils can’t play as tentatively as they did in their first two losses.
“You might make some mistakes. You’re going to have to make plays under duress. Some of those decisions might not be the best,” he said. “But in order to create, you’re going to have to put some risk in your game.”
Stanley Cup playoffs: Hurricanes-Devils Game 4 keys, preview