Mrazek Returns in Split Series Against Dallas

Cary, NC — Coach Rod Brind’Amour reminded everyone the Dallas Stars, who are in a battle with Nashville, Columbus and Chicago for the fourth and final playoff spot, are virtually the same team that was runner-up for the Stanley Cup last season and know how to win. And win they did.

Stars Take First Game, 3-2

Despite the Canes winning the previous 4 games with 2 going against the Stars, it’s extremely hard to sweep an 8 game season series as the Canes lost a tough, tight contest 3-2 in front of another “COVID sellout” of 4,987.

One positive sign was the Canes shutdown long-time veteran Joe Pavelski, who seems to bring his best against the Canes leading all forwards with 21 minutes of ice time and just 38% in the faceoff circle. Impressive for a player selected in the 7th round, 205th overall back in 2003 logging 1,065 games and 826 points.

Hamilton Relies On Scoring Instinct

The Canes’ game plan remained the same — forecheck like crazy, get as many pucks to the net as possible, play a full 60 minutes, have responsible coverage in front of Alex Nedelkjovic, and don’t take stupid penalties. All boxes checked except for the last two. Andrei Svechnikov took a bad penalty late in the second that burnt the Canes and 59 minutes and 55 seconds isn’t the full 60 minutes.

Early in the first, Blake Comeau won a faceoff against Vincent Trocheck, drawing it back to Mark Pysyk on the right point. With 7 players skating across the slot area, Pysyk sent a wrister to the goal that Andrew Cogliano tipped while moving that beat Ned for an early lead for the Stars.

The Canes responded well, controlling a slight majority of the play while trying to sidestep the Stars who are a very physical team full of big bodies who are among the league leaders for hits. Just shy of midway in the period, Jaccob Slavin dumped the puck deep into the Stars’ end.

Stars’ goalie Jake Oettinger went around the net flinging it up the far boards. Jesper Fast, Rhett Gardner and the puck all met at the same time with Quickie getting his stick on the puck knocking it through the slot over to the near boards. Svech was tied up by his defender with Quickie and Gardner racing over to the puck.

The puck squirted out with Troch picking up the puck initially looked for a shot, saw the lane completely blocked then wisely passed over to Dougie Hamilton pinching on the right.

Hamilton carried the puck right to the top corner of the crease tried to go 5-hole but Oettinger closed his pads so instinct took over and Hamilton backhanded the pass to his forehand, went by Oettinger then flipped the puck into the net for a slick-looking goal to tie the game at 1.

The remainder of the period was very entertaining with both teams keeping the opposing goalies active with the Canes having 15 shots while the Stars got off 11. 

Svech Draws Penalty, Fleury Nets First of Season

The second period was an extension of the first. Neither team made, nor needed to make any adjustments and game plans were being followed by both teams.

Forechecking by the Canes and taking bodies by the Stars. As in many sports that don’t have set possession breaks like baseball where each team has at least 9 times ‘on offense’, gaining, then holding possession is a key factor in hockey. Possession starts with winning faceoffs. In his playing days, Roddy was phenomenal in the faceoff circle. It’s no wonder he is the coach that handles that area.

Strength, quickness and anticipation are keys to winning faceoffs. Roddy had all 3 with his prime faceoff player, Jordan Staal, also having all 3 with the extra emphasis on strength. Jordo won an amazing 70% in the circle against some tough competitors. Rookie Steve Lorentz won a faceoff deep in the Stars end drawing it back to Brett Pesce who rimmed the puck behind the Stars net.

Jordan Martinook got the puck just before his defender sending it back to Pesch along the far half boards. Pesch slid it up to Haydn Fleury on the left point who immediately flung towards the net as he saw Cedric Paquette providing a screen. The puck hit former Cane Andrew Sekera bouncing in the net for Fleury’s first goal of the season and the Canes lead of 2-1.

Late in the period, on what looked like a nothing play as the lines were going to start a change, Miro Heiskanen had the puck with Svech the only other player in the Stars end when Heiskanen started to go around Svech, Svech made a huge error and lifted his stick to tap Heiskanen’s gloves for a slashing penalty.

The Stars only needed 17 seconds to convert the powerplay and tie the game with just 29 seconds left in the period. 

Canes Pay for Coverage Breakdown

Early in the third, the Stars turned the puck over 3 times in the Canes’ end but the Canes couldn’t take advantage and clear the puck. Fleury stole the puck for the Stars’ third turnover, went around the net for a clear but mishandled the puck to the right of the net.

Tanner Keno advanced the puck up to Denis Gurianov on the right point who sent the puck along the boards. Jason Robertson had a step on Martinook, while facing 5e boards passed the puck backhanded to the crease where Keno was unchecked for 5 seconds and chipped in the shot for a 3-2 lead that would become the eventual game-winner.

The Canes kept the pressure on getting off a game-high 16 shots in the period, 43 for the game, but couldn’t get anything to go in the net. Roddy pulled Ned with about 2 minutes to go and the offense did what they could as they constantly got off shot after shot but Oettinger was solid.

In the last two minutes, there were 5 faceoffs after a glove save and several shots Oettinger had to use his pads or blocker. It all sets up the highly unusual Easter Sunday game in this unusual season. 

Mrazek Shuts Out Stars, 1-0, In Return

His last NHL game was back on January 30 when after a collision with teammate Max McCormick that resulted in what’s been both reported as a dislocated and/or broken thumb that required 2 surgeries for inserting and removing pins, Petr Mrazek was back in goal, getting his third shutout of the season in only 5 starts. Statistics are funny sometimes but his save percentage at .968 is just sick.

The Canes defense probably had their best game as a unit, whether it was because of support for Mrazek, which I doubt, or out of wanting to tighten up even further, which is more probable. Each player had great games and played an important role for the shutout and limiting the Stars to 28 shots on net. Now, this is a decent number, but it was also a surprise.

While watching the game and peering at the shot count, I wondered how the Stars shots got even close to the Canes 38. Yeah, statistics are funny sometimes. 

Canes Play Outstanding Game on Defense

Every game between these teams has been hard-fought and very physical. The Stars play a heavy game which in hockey terms means they’ll make their opponent pay the price for getting near the boards or keeping their heads down while in open ice as they may find themselves seeing more stars than the ones wearing sweaters.

To survive in the NHL, teams and players have to constantly adjust. Adjust to coverage, adjust to a hot player on a scoring streak, adjust to a hot goalie, adjust to a dump and chase team, or adjust to a team playing heavy. Rod Brind’Amour had the team adjust. The Canes adjusted so well, they banged off a season-high 54 hits —  I repeat, 54 hits!

That could be a total for 3 or 4 games. Funny how statistics can be. Cedric Paquette led everyone with 8 hits with only 8 minutes of ice time. Imagine if he played 15 minutes. Statistically, that’s mind-boggling. Paquette has only been with the Canes a few weeks but has fit in, adjusted in hockey terms, really well with this group.

Late in the period, Blake Comeau got all over rookie Steve Lorentz that Paquette took exception with offsetting what would have been a powerplay but there were 19 teammates and 3 coaches on the bench that would call that a good penalty.

The defense was setting their stingy standard early as it was nearly the midpoint of the first period before Mrazek made his first save. The first period ended with the Canes having 11 shots to just 6 for the Stars. Statistically, that’s about average.

Martinook Finishes Textbook Play

Vincent Trocheck lost one of the few faceoffs he lost all game to start the second but the Canes quickly forced a turnover to gain possession. Brett Pesce intercepted the dump midway in his own end then seeing the positions of the Stars quickly passed to Troch in the neutral zone.

Troch turned to possibly start a rush but saw forward Andrew Cogliano was the lone defender. Jordan Martinook read the play and turned on his jets down Broadway, Troch flipped a saucer pass over Cogliano’s stick right to Marty’s tape who took one stride then buried a shot over Jake Oettinger’s right shoulder for a textbook transition play.

Marty has been close so many times in the past dozen games or so he did what many players in a semi slump do- they seek advice from their dads. Marty’s dad, who is a frequent visitor to many tailgates during playoffs, told him to stop gripping the stick so hard and just shoot his normal shot.

Simple and statistically sound advice. The game was a highly exciting game, even with the lack of scoring. No player or fan is particularly happy playing only 7 teams but everyone is happy playing is happening. Points this season mean more than other seasons as a point you give lose is a win for another team in your own division.

The Canes are in great shape to make the playoffs but the Stars are in a dog fight for the fourth spot. They played like this was a game 7 as there was no quit in the Stars. It seemed like the Canes were getting off so many shots in the second, 18 on net, that Mrazek would be lonely in his return but somehow the stats showed the Stars got off 10. How could that be? 

Mrazek Gets Shutout in Long-Awaited Return

Have no idea how this happened but Stars coach, Rick Bowness, was absent from the Stars’ bench in the third. Turns out he was held out due to COVID protocol and that should send shivers to both teams. I can only guess he must have had a COVID symptom and, with strict NHL rules, has to stay isolated.

All coaches break one rule and that is to pull their masks down when talking to a player. The Vancouver Canucks are decimated right now with COVID. The Boston Bruins recently had some issues. The Canes were the first team affected after the season started and have to be super concerned and super cautious over the next few days.

Jaccob Slavin who was one of the Canes affected early in the season had his team-high straight game playing streak killed due to COVID. Every team member has a key role in the team’s success and any disruption can be disastrous let alone what the virus can do to anyone.

These are some of the most physically fit people in sports but some NHL players have had a serious time with COVID. While all the Canes D-men had great games, Brady Skjei looked like he was really enjoying the game. Turns out Skjei skates in the off-season with the Stars netminder, Oettinger, along with fellow Canes Jake Gardiner, who is still out with a lower back issue. Skjei is a very good two-way player and also a fun-loving guy so you know he wanted to score on his friend for bragging rights.

Skjei led all skaters with 7 shots on net. Seven shots for Skjei has to be a career-high as he has averaged less than 2 shots per game throughout his career coupled with his shot scoring percentage, he should have had that goal against Otty. Funny how statistics should work but don’t. 

With the Stars coach off isolating someplace and the absolute need for points, the Stars came out on fire in the third. By the end of the period, they kept Mrazek the busiest he was all game forcing 12 saves while the Canes had their game low of just 9 shots on net.

The Canes didn’t turtle at all on their play, they were still sending all 3 forwards deep as no one thought one goal would be enough due to the way the Stars were playing.

There are only two players that don’t like high-scoring games and those are the goalies. Fans love scoring, as do statisticians and while most high-scoring games are very exciting, this game was outstanding on the exciting scale. It’s like a no-hitter in baseball. No one who saw a no-hitter complained it was a boring game and that’s in baseball, which can challenge the excitement scale. (And yes, I am a baseball fan.)

This game literally went down to the last possession which is what fans and the league want. One big concern for the Canes was when Brock McGinn got blindsided and sent to the locker room in the first. He made it back in the second for another shift but took himself out of the game after just logging 7 shifts and a little over 4 minutes of ice time. If McGinn takes himself out of a game, he has to have a major injury as his pain threshold is, statistically, off the charts. 

The COVID sellout of just under 5000 Caniacs was extremely loud and their enthusiasm was noticed by the bench. For the very few new players, their teammates are telling them if the PNC barn gets full during the playoffs, they’ll not get over how loud the place gets.

If COVID restrictions ease up to allow tailgating, they’ll see Redneck Hockey at its best. The playoffs are still about 5 weeks away and anyone interested in securing a seat in PNC Arena for games should look into becoming a season ticket holder.

The Canes have one of the most affordable STH packages in the NHL, which includes discounts at concessions, discounts at The Eye, special STH events with players and much more. From what I’ve been told, they are having excellent ticket sales for the 2021-22 season.

Story by Bob Fennel. Photos courtesy of the Canes public Facebook page and Stars public Facebook page.

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