TORONTO – Game 1 belongs to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Jaccob Slavin scored 61 seconds into the game, part of a fiery start that sparked the Canes to a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Here are five takeaways from Game 1.
1. Setting the Tone
Playoff hockey is the best hockey. It’s intense, it’s physical and it usually is amplified by a raucous atmosphere. With no fans in Toronto for this postseason tournament, many wondered how that would affect the play on the ice.
“For sure, the intensity will be there. As for momentum shifts with the crowd and all that stuff, that might not be quite the same, obviously, but I know for a fact as soon as that puck drops, it’s going to be intense,” Jordan Staal said on Friday. “It’s going to be a good game. It’s going to be a good battle.”
Just 32 seconds into the game, Brady Skjei lit up Jesper Fast in the neutral zone.
“That just got everyone involved early, even on the bench,” Slavin said.
It was on, and the physicality and intensity didn’t subside from there.
Not even three minutes deep, Justin Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup Champion, dropped the gloves in the neutral zone with Ryan Strome. Williams, in just the second fight of his 156-game NHL playoff career, landed an early right that bloodied Strome’s nose.
“There was a lot of emotion at the start of the game, which was awesome to see because there was nobody physically there watching us,” Williams said. “You get on the ice, and it’s compete. There was a lot of emotion and a lot of adrenaline to start the game.”
Intensity? Check. A battle. Check. Yep, this was the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I was happy with the way we came ready to play, no doubt about it,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “For us, this is playoff hockey.”
That’s the truth. It might not be the standard field of 16 just yet, but the Qualifiers carry just as much as weight as the First Round and beyond will. It’s win or go home, and the Canes are just getting started.
“We’ve all had a lot of time to prepare for this game. The lead up to it, there’s been so much of it. The guys were ready,” Brind’Amour said. “To play something for real, they haven’t had that opportunity in a long, long time and wanted to take advantage of it. The guys were really excited, and grateful to be honest with you, to play for something that meant something. I thought we had a good game and came out really strong.”
2. Slavin Strikes First
Trivia question: Who is the first NHL player to score a goal in August?
The answer: Jaccob Slavin, and it only took 61 seconds for it to happen.
Teuvo Teravainen walked the puck off the far wall and eyed Slavin sneaking in from the point, undetected by Fast, who was still dazed from the Skjei hit and unfortunately didn’t return to the game, as well. Teravainen threaded the needle across the ice, putting the puck right on Slavin’s stick. Slavin roofed the first shot of the game over Henrik Lundqvist, only amplifying the early juice the Canes created with physicality.
Slavin picks the corner
“To get one early kind of settled the bench a little bit. It’s always better to play in front, and that’s kind of obvious,” Brind’Amour said. “It just settles your whole group down when you don’t have to chase a game.”
Slavin’s goal was the fourth-fastest game-opening goal and second fastest Game 1 game-opening goal in franchise postseason history.
3. Emphasis on Special Teams
Special teams is a constant area of emphasis, and more often than not, it can be the difference in a game.
Look no further than the season series between these two teams, when the Rangers converted 33.3 percent of their power plays to the Canes’ 12.5 percent.
Though the Canes didn’t exactly stay out of the box in Game 1, their penalty kill was a sparkling 7-for-7 against a man advantage with some high-end talent.
“I don’t think we can take that many penalties and go deep in the playoffs. Our penalty kill did a good job tonight, but it just kills the momentum of the game,” Slavin said. “We have to stay out of the box. We got fortunate tonight.”
And, at the other end of the ice, the Canes converted on one of their seven power plays and scored directly after another.
There’s your difference.
4. Aho Connects on the Power Play, Necas Scores the Game-Winner
After the Canes had already killed four Rangers’ power plays, Sebastian Aho converted on his team’s third man advantage of the game. Andrei Svechnikov wired a pass into the slot, and Aho turned his stick blade to redirect the puck past Lundqvist, doubling the Canes’ lead to 2-0 at the 6:29 mark of the second period.
Sami Vatanen recorded the secondary helper on the goal, his first point wtih the Canes.
Aho delivers PPG
Aho, who finished the game with a goal and an assist, now has 14 points (6g, 8a) in 16 postseason games. Only Eric Staal (20), Kevin Dineen (16), Cory Stillman (16) and John Anderson (16) recorded more points in their first 16 playoff games in franchise history.
“He’s an elite player,” Brind’Amour said of Aho. “He plays hard. How much more can you expect from him? I don’t know. He’s getting better and better.”
Mike Zibanejad’s redirection goal later in the second period cut the Canes’ lead to 2-1 before the second intermission, but just past the midway point of the third period, Martin Necas restored his team’s two-goal advantage.
Six seconds after the Canes’ sixth power play expired, Necas fired a one-timer off Marc Staal and past Lundqvist, the rookie Czech’s first career NHL postseason goal in his first career NHL postseason contest. Though that stretched the score to 3-1 at the time, it held up as the game-winner when Staal later netted a shorthanded goal to give the Rangers some life late in the third period.
Necas fires one-timer off Rangers
Necas, who won championships with HC Kometa Brno in 2017 and 2018 and the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in 2019, becomes the third player in franchise history to net the game-winning goal in his postseason debut, joining Erik Cole (2002) and Sylvain Turgeon (1986).
5. One Down, 18 to Go
Game 1 is just but a game, but it’s an important one.
In fact, look back to the 1980s, when the NHL regularly staged five-game playoff series. Then, the winner of Game 1 went on to win the series 87.5 percent of the time (47-of-56).
It’s still just one victory, but it was an impressive one, at that. Two more to go in the qualifying round.
“Months without playing a meaningful hockey game is tough for professional athletes. We came out, and both teams had a lot of intensity,” Williams said. “We won the first game, but that only means we’re up 1-0. That’s totally it. We’ll pick it up, move on and try to make it two.”
Game 2 is slated for Monday at noon, followed by a quick turnaround for Game 3 on Tuesday at 8 p.m.