It looked like a simulacrum of a playoff series on paper and it’s turning out to be one on the ice. If the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning are the two best teams in the division, it’s going to take more than four games to figure out which one truly has the edge.
The Hurricanes dominated the first game of this four-game set Saturday, and the Lightning answered back right off the hop Monday night, just as you’d expect in the postseason, precisely the kind of back-and-forth that characterizes and so often defines a good playoff series between two good teams.
That it all came down to a critical third-period miscue to give the Lightning a 4-2 win only underlines how closely separated these teams are and will continue to be the rest of the way, never mind that while they were arbitrating things in Raleigh, the Florida Panthers were busy claiming first place in the Central Division for their own with a 29-shot second period against the Dallas Stars.
These things will work themselves out yet. That it’s still February matters not; even though the schedule was reconfigured to throw these teams together for an ersatz four-game set — the series heads to Tampa for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Thursday — everyone’s going to see a lot of each other this season, now and in the playoffs, and this is just the first time through. If it’s feisty now, it’s all just the beginning.
“We want to show what we’ve got,” said Hurricanes defenseman Jake Bean, who has kept his spot in the lineup with some strong play. “We know the way we have to play on a night-in, night-out basis and we have a chance to do that now.”
Things did get a little feisty Monday, if not, say, truculent, but there was the kind of unwise ambition often generated by playoff atmospheres. Erik Cernak’s eyes got big as he lined up a big hit on Jesper Fast in front of the Hurricanes’ bench, but Fast braced himself and redirected Cernak over the boards and into the laps of his opponents.
Warren Foegele carried on a running discourse with several Tampa Bay players in the latter stages of the game, a discussion that could be resumed in the next installment, again the kind of thing more often seen in spring than winter.
The Lightning was soundly outplayed in Saturday’s 4-0 Alex Nedeljkovic shutout and brought the energy to answer Monday but still found themselves a goal behind at the first intermission thanks to some quality special teams on the Hurricanes’ part. They killed a pair of penalties before getting the first of Jesper Fast’s two goals seconds after a Tampa Bay penalty expired.
Fast got that one by tucking away a rebound, and he got his second the same way on a power play late in the second period to tie the score 2-2. The Hurricanes needed that one after the Lightning capitalized on their dominance early in the second period to score a pair of goals from almost the same spot — Stephen Stamkos and Victor Hedman from the left circle — but the tide evened and it was still anyone’s game in the third despite the way it started.
“That’s exactly what we said was going to happen, thought was going to happen, prepared for it,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “But obviously we weren’t ready for it from the start.”
It came down, as it so often does, to a single miscue. Brady Skjei’s turnover in his own zone ended up in his own net moments later, off his own skate no less as Ondrej Palat whacked away at the puck during a scramble in front.
The empty-netter was enough to hand the Hurricanes their first regulation loss in two weeks. The opportunity to avenge the defeat will come quickly, as it did for the Lightning on Monday. It’s not a playoff series, it just feels that way. Whether it’s a preview of the real thing, time will tell.