The Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals have already played a six-game series this season, in a sense.
The Caps won the first four games, all in the regular season. The Caps have won the first two games of their Stanley Cup playoff series.
The Eastern Conference first-round series, after the first two games at Capital One Arena in Washington, now changes sites. For the first time since 2009, the Canes will have a playoff game at home, at PNC Arena, one that should create both a bit of nostalgia and a frenzied atmosphere Monday for Game 3.
“It’s going to be loud and it’s going to be emotional,” Canes center Sebastian Aho said Sunday. “I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like.”
The problem for the Canes: the venue is changing but not the opponent. They still have to find a way to beat a deep, physical, experienced and cocksure Caps team that was the 2018 Stanley Cup champion, that has won all six games against Carolina this season and done it in different ways. If that doesn’t happen in the next two games, the Canes’ season will be over.
Are the Caps just too much of a matchup problem for the Canes?
“I think they’re a bad matchup for everybody,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Sunday. “They’re the best. They’re the champs.
“They’ve been tight games. I think every game we’ve been involved and certainly had a chance to win. A couple I thought we were the better team. But not last game. The last game they were definitely the better team.”
The Caps won Game 2 on Saturday 4-3 by being better at even strength, getting goals from forwards Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson, then an overtime winner from perhaps the most unlikely player on the ice, defenseman Brooks Orpik.
In Game 1, the Caps scored twice on the power play in the first period in jumping to a 3-0 lead and won 4-2. Shifting their emphasis to improved play at even strength in Game 2, the Caps hurt the Canes off the rush and in transition. The Caps have not trailed in either of the two games.
“Getting behind is tough,” Brind’Amour said. “When you’re chasing it you start getting away from what you want to do and that just doesn’t work very well.
“I give our guys a lot of credit. They keep digging in. We keep finding ways to get into these games. We haven’t played our best and had a chance to win. I would love to see our best and see what happens.”
The Canes clawed back into Game 1 behind a pair of even-strength goals from rookie forward Andrei Svechnikov. In Game 2, fourth-line center Lucas Wallmark scored for the Canes as did Aho, who ended a frustrating streak of 15 games with a goal with a second-period score as the Canes’ top line, outplayed much of the game, had its best shift.
The Canes had the better end of special teams play Saturday. They killed off a five-minute match penalty against forward Micheal Ferland -- a call that Brind’Amour still had a hard time discussing Sunday -- and tied the score 3-3 late in regulation on Jordan Staal’s power-play goal off a redirection off a Dougie Hamilton shot.
“I don’t think we played our best game and we had a chance to win,” Aho said. “We were in OT and in OT anything can happen.”
What happened in overtime was Canes defenseman Brett Pesce losing his stick in the neutral zone trying to defend against Caps forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. Canes forward Teuvo Teravainen finally passed his stick to Pesce in the Canes zone, only to find himself facing Orpik as Orpik took a tape-to-tape pass from Kuznetsov in the left circle.
Teravainen tried to block the shot but Orpik, who had two goals in the regular season and 18 in 1,035 career games, went top shelf on goalie Petr Mrazek for the winner.
“That’s a tough one,” Brind’Amour said of the sequence. “A lot of things went wrong on that play. That’s usually how goals go in. One thing leads to another, leads to another and then it’s in the net. Tough lesson but it’s another one.”
But it’s on to Game 3 and some Canes fans may be in the PNC Arena parking lots at first light Monday, ready to party. A lot will be firing up grills and pulling out favorite beverages to tailgate -- a Carolina playoff tradition -- and the arena should be rocking come game time.
“Our hope is we give our best and see how it shakes out,” Brind’Amour said. “The fans deserve something to cheer about and I hope we give them that. We hope to give them a lot to be excited about.”