Canes’ glaring need? Sharper special teams play in Game 2

There seemed to be little question which team was the better five-on-five team Thursday.

The Carolina Hurricanes dropped Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series to the Washington Capitals, but the Canes’ play at even strength was consistently aggressive much of the night in the 4-2 loss at Capital One Arena.

But the power play? Different story. A big part of the story.

The Canes were making a third-period charge Thursday, buzzing around the Caps zone and goalie Braden Holtby, and Andrei Svechnikov scored twice, both after nice passes from Lucas Wallmark. The Caps’ lead, 3-0 after the first, had shrunk to 3-2 and the Canes were coming, hard.

“We got some jump,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

Then, two power plays. With a man advantage, the Canes twice slowed themselves down. Cautious passing. Not enough movement. Far too few shots.

On the second power play, Brind’Amour pulled goalie Petr Mrazek for a sixth attacker and 6-on-4 advantage. That didn’t help either, not against a team with as many snipers as the Caps have. Lars Eller’s empty-net snipe with 47 seconds left in regulation clinched it for the Caps.

Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin and Svechnikov had shots blocked on the second power play -- two by Nicklas Backstrom -- and Justin Williams missed the net with an attempt as the Caps’ penalty killers hunkered down.

The Canes also had a second-period power play. That did generate shots on goal by Nino Niederreiter and Sebastian Aho.

“Obviously our power play has to better, a little crisper and create more chances, more shots,” the Canes’ Jordan Staal said.

The power play has been a season-long head-scratcher. The Canes have skill players. They have playmakers. They have defensemen such as Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk who can get off heavy shots.

The Canes scored power-play goals in four straight games in the final stretch of the season as they secured their first playoff berth since 2009. But that came after going nine straight games without one.

Carolina Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams (14) works for the puck against Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby (70) during the third period of Game 1 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Thursday, April 11, 2019, in Washington. The Capitals won 4-2. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) Nick Wass AP

Not that it was all about the Canes’ power play Thursday. The Caps scored two power-play goals in the first period as Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin knocked in shots for the 3-0 lead after Backstrom had opened the scoring with an even-strength shot from the right circle that beat Mrazek.

Backstrom’s power-play score came when he slipped in front of defenseman Brett Pesce near the crease and took a perfectly placed pass off the half-wall from Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has hurt the Canes this season with his playmaking ability.

“Same thing that we’ve done since I’ve been here. Moved the puck around to the open guy and tried not to force too many seam passes, tried (not) to force too many high-risk plays,” Backstrom said. “When we move the puck fast, we get looks and have got good players to take care of them.”

Everyone knows about Ovechkin’s one-timers from the left circle. They’re the definition of “high danger scoring chances.” But the Caps are crafty, picked their spots and Thursday made the Canes pay.

“That’s frustrating for me at this time of year, especially when we had a couple of days to talk about it,” Brind’Amour said.

The Canes had 26 even-strength shots to the Caps’ 13 in the game, had 17 shots blocked and another 23 attempts that missed the net -- in all, 69 shot attempts to Washington’s 43.

“You’re happy with a win but we can play better than that, especially five-on-five for us,” Caps coach Todd Reirden said “There’s an area that we’ve got to do some work on and there’s room for improvement in that spot, for sure. We for the most part defended it OK but we can create more off that.

“That being said, we had some good chances that missed the net sometimes and their goalie made some saves when we had a chance to make it 4-0. “

For the Caps, that’s five straight wins over the Canes this season. To extend the series, the Canes will need better execution and awareness. They’ll need to avoid penalties as best they can.

They won 22 road games during the regular season, so they’ve handled that end of it well. But beating the Caps at Capital One Arena is a different animal, as they say. And this is the playoffs.

“A positive for me was we weren’t at our best and still had a chance to win,” Brind’Amour said.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.