The question was posed to Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour a few days before the season opener: would he have a good gauge on his team after the first three games?
It would be the Montreal Canadiens in the opener, with goalie Carey Price in net. Then a trip to Washington to face the Caps in their home opener, with all the emotion and baggage from last year’s playoff series. Finally, back home against Tampa Bay, the Presidents’ Trophy winner last season.
“Where are we at after three games? I think we’ll have a pretty good idea,” Brind’Amour said last week. “But I think it’s going to take some time with this team to figure that out, what we’re all about.”
The three games have come and gone and the Canes are 3-0, rallying from behind each game, making “resiliency” the operative word. The Canes followed up a shootout win over the Canadiens with overtime victories over the Caps and Lightning, beating Tampa Bay 4-3 on Sunday at PNC Arena on Jaccob Slavin’s goal.
The 3-0 start is the Canes’ best since the 1995-96 season and they’re 3-0 when trailing after the second period, matching last season’s three wins (3-20-3). What are the Canes all about? Still hard to say. Remember, they started last season 4-0-1, then went 2-7-1 in their next 10. It’s early. As Brind’Amour said, the season is an 82-game grind.
But there have been some early snapshots:
Surge of offense from the defense
Dougie Hamilton had the only shootout goal in the opener against the Habs. Jake Gardiner had the overtime goal against the Caps. Then, Slavin on Sunday.
See a trend here? All from defensemen. Not to be overlooked: Slavin also scored against the Caps, Brett Pesce had the first goal Sunday and Hamilton’s power-play bast tied the score in the third period in another Canes comeback.
Brind’Amour wanted more offensive help from the blue line this season. He’s getting it.
“It’s defense first, defend, but when they get a chance they’ve got the green light,” he said.
Said Slavin: “We’ve got a pretty skilled group of defensemen. All of us can skate and so we’re trying to contribute any way we can.”
As for the defensive work, Tampa Bay did not have a shot in the second period, two in the third and 13 for the game. According to the NHL, it’s the first time a Presidents’ Trophy winner has been held without a shot in a period in the season after taking the trophy.
Early verdict: Erik Haula is good
There were questions about Erik Haula from the time the Canes obtained the center in the June 27 trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. Was his knee OK? Could he replicate his scoring with the Golden Knights two years ago, when he had a career-high 29 goals?
Haula’s answer has been a goal in each of his first three games. He has scored on the power play, done the dirty work in penalty killing and won 57 percent of his faceoffs, going 15-4 against the Lightning. He has put the bad knee injury from last season — and the long rehab it required — behind him.
What does he think of his start? “We’ve got a three-game winning streak, that’s good,” Haula said.
Special teams a plus
If Brind’Amour had a boondoggle in his first year as a head coach, it was the power play. It had its moments -- some good, some very bad.
But Brind’Amour might have found a unit that can click: Hamilton, Haula, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov and Ryan Dzingel. It produced two power-play goals against Tampa Bay, Haula punching in the rebound of a Hamilton shot and then Hamilton — named the game’s first star — ripping one from just inside the blue line. Haula also scored against the Caps off a Teravainen pass.
The Canes’ other power-play unit has Gardiner, Sebastian Aho, Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal and Martin Necas. It hasn’t been as threatening. For now, it’s the second unit.
“We feel we have two equal groups,” Brind’Amour said. “We’ll definitely need both groups going, I know, and we’ll probably tinker as we go along. But it’s nice to see it working right now.”
The Canes’ penalty killing also has been on point. Against the Caps, the Canes were 6-for-6 on kills. Tampa Bay did get a power-play goal in the first period, but the Canes killed off a Hamilton tripping penalty early in the second with the Lightning leading 3-1 and later two other penalties.
“That might be the difference in the whole game right now,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re getting a special-teams goal here and there and that gets you back in the game. At the right time, special teams can be huge. We kill a penalty at the right time. They had a chance to go up 4-1 and we kill that penalty and it keeps you in the game and obviously getting the power-play goals gets you right back in the game.”
Reimer impressive in first start
Granted, one game is the smallest of sample sizes but Brind’Amour liked what he saw from goalie James Reimer in his first start.
Being sent out against the Caps on Saturday was a thankless task. The Caps had won two road games to start the season and wanted nothing more than to rip the Canes in their first home game at Capital One Arena.
A year ago, Washington raised its Stanley Cup championship banner and then blasted the Boston Bruins 7-0 in the home opener. The Caps probably had something like that in mind for Saturday after the disappointment of losing the first-round playoff series to the Canes last spring, blowing a lead in Game 7 and losing in double overtime.
But Reimer was up to the challenge. He gave up a couple of goals but made some high-quality saves among his 32 stops -- ask the Caps’ Alex Ovechkin -- to keep the Canes in the game, then picked up his 145th career victory.
The Canes had the right goaltending fit last season with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Will it be the same with Mrazek and Reimer?
Is Sebastian Aho stressing?
It’s a different kind of season for Sebastian Aho. His first three in the NHL have been about establishing himself, first as a rookie, then as a center and as a player worthy of being selected an NHL All-Star.
Then came the offer sheet from Montreal on July 1. When the Canes matched it, Aho had a contract that would pay him $21 million in bonus money the first 12 months. His total salary for the 2019-20 season, according to CapFriendly.com, is $12 million -- almost twice that of any other player on the Canes’ roster -- although his cap hit is $8.454 million.
Aho has 13 shots in the first three games, so he’s getting his offensive looks, but does not have a point. Is he stressing a bit? Too soon to say, perhaps, but it bears watching.