Home versus road through 25 games
With Sunday’s 1-0 overtime win, the Carolina Hurricanes ran their home record to 7-3. After a 1-3 start at PNC Arena, the Hurricanes have now reeled off 6 straight wins. The strong home record has the Hurricanes still within sniffing distance of playoff position despite struggles on the road.
Last week’s 0-2-1 record pushed the team’s road record to a meager 3-7-5.
And it really has been a tale of 2 different teams. At home, the Hurricanes have generally been sound and solid and have been able to find ways to win. In 10 home games, the Canes have only 2 really poor outings. On October 30 against the Flyers, the Canes suffered their only third period break down at home blowing a lead in the third period to lose 4-3. And on November 6, the Hurricanes put forward a lackluster effort and lost 5-1 to the Devils without ever really finding their way into the game. I would classify the other home loss to Anaheim as a decent effort that did not garner results.
On the road, the Hurricanes itinerary includes a list of poor outings including blowing leads and quite literally blowing up in the the third period on multiple occasions. The season started with the team blowing consecutive 3-goal leads and converting should-be wins in overtime losses. After building a 3-1 lead in Philadelphia, the Hurricanes gave up 6 goals in a little less than 2 periods to turn a good situation into a lopsided loss. More recently, the Hurricanes have seen a couple miscues lead to losses in Montreal and Ottawa and then more break downs lead to 3 more losses on the road against the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers again. Suddenly the Hurricanes have lost 5 straight on the road collecting only a lone overtime loss point in those 5 games.
The road results do not bode well for the coming week with all 3 games on the road against Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose.
Does home cooking make that much difference?
So what gives? How is it possible for the same team to be generally sound and solid at home but a complete mess too regularly on the road? Are hotels and airports really that harmful to hockey play?
Actually, I think the jekyl and hyde Hurricanes depending on venue is mostly a function of the NHL rules that empower the home coach to dictate match ups for much of a home game, by using the last change that he gets on face-offs to determine who plays against whom.
At home, Coach Bill Peters has been able to play defensive strength against offensive strength to neutralize opponents’ best scoring line. The wings have changed over the course of the season, but the basic formula is to pair Jordan Staal’s line with the top defense pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Past that Peters has been able to cherry pick an occasional favorable match up for Jeff Skinner and also greatly minimize exposure to any mismatches that he sees. The net result is that at home it very infrequently happens that the Hurricanes face a match up that they really dislike.
On the road, the situation flips. The opposing coach gets the chance to drive match ups and try capitalize on mismatches. The purest way to counter this situation and do well on the road is to have a team that is balanced and deep such that any of the 4 forward lines and 3 defense pairings can hold their own. The Hurricanes roster just is not there right now. Ron Hainsey and Justin Faulk started slow and have recently regressed after a run of better play. The third pairing solidified significantly with the insertion of Matt Tennyson, but the pairing can still be overmatched at times.
Simple old school plus/minus numbers show the results. Noah Hanifin is a minus 5 on the road but only minus 2 at home with damage coming almost completely on the first road trip. Justin Faulk is an abysmal minus 14 on the road but plus 5 at home. Let that sink in for a second. With Justin Faulk on the ice on the road, the Carolina Hurricanes are losing by very nearly 1 goal per game. Ron Hainsey who has mostly been paired with Faulk similarly is similarly a minus 8 on the road but a plus 3 at home. Part of the effect is simply that the Hurricanes have been better at home than on the road, but the difference between the 2 is greatest for Faulk and Hainsey. Opposing coaches have received the memo from their advanced scouts that Hainsey/Faulk can be beaten right now especially with forward lines with speed, and they are exploiting it on a nightly basis.
In the most recent road games, Peters tried to balance out his roster and road-proof it by decoupling Jordan Staal’s line from Slavin/Pesce for the most part. The theory is that Slavin/Pesce can help support the lesser Staal-less forward lines, and Jordan Staal provides a measure of support for the lesser defense pairings. That worked reasonably well at least in terms of suppressing other teams’ scoring in the first set of road games after the home stand. The Hurricanes gave up only 1, 2 and 2 goals respectively to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa and lost only because of a couple mistakes and more so inability to score enough.
But then the Hurricanes lost Jordan Staal to a concussion before the next wave of road games, and subsequently the wheels came off defensively at the tail end of a couple games. First, in New York, the Hurricanes gave up 3 unanswered goals starting at about the midway point of the game to turn an early 2-0 lead into a 3-2 loss. The Boston loss saw the Hurricanes yield the tying goal with only 30 seconds left. And a return trip to New York saw the Hurricanes tied at 1-1 entering the third period only to fall apart defensively and lose 4-2. Minus the support of Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk was on the ice for 6 of the 8 goals allowed in last week’s 3-game road trip. Hainsey was on the ice for 5 of the 8 and in the penalty box for the other that Faulk was on for.
One of the narratives going around about the Carolina Hurricanes is that they are just a young team that needs to learn to close out wins. But here’s the thing. During the debacles to start the season and also the struggles more recently, it has much more so been the 2 most veteran defensemen in the middle of the messes and less a function of mistakes by the youth.
So how do the Hurricanes get better?
Schedule: First, the schedule should provide some help soon. The Hurricanes play 3 on the road to take their road slate up to 18 games compared to only 10 at home. That will obviously even out over time with a 4-game home stand coming up shortly. Peters has demonstrated an ability to pull the levers and work the match ups to cover up some of the glaring weaknesses that show up on the road.
Jordan Staal: A return of Jordan Staal would obviously help too. With Staal there to help support Hainsey/Faulk on the road 2 weeks ago, the results were somewhat better defensively at least. If you combine Jordan Staal with finding a bit more depth scoring on the road, I think Peters has a formula that should be able to stay in games and at least tread water in terms of win-loss results.
Justin Faulk rising: At a very basic level, I think the single player most capable of boosting the Carolina Hurricanes to a higher level right now is Justin Faulk. Put bluntly, he just has not been very good defensively when you look at the 2016-17 season in total. Far too many goals against feature him in the play and too often close enough to help fish the puck out of the net behind Ward.
What is most notable to me is his mobility issues. Faulk just does not have the strong, quick couple strides that he has when playing well. He has never been the fastest in a straight line over long distances, but he had above average acceleration and also the ability to take a couple quick strides to get to pucks or players in a hurry and then be able to use his strength to his advantage. Thus far in 2016-17, he is too often either being beaten or leaving too much of a gap such that his strong physical play does not even come into play. Opposing coaches have taken note and are working the game to get their speedy scorers on the ice against Faulk/Hainsey, and they have been rewarded for it. I do not have any inside information as to whether Faulk is perhaps nursing a minor injury that is slowing him down, if he is just off to a slow start as has been the case in previous years or if it is something else altogether. Regardless, to win consistently in the NHL especially on the road, a team must have 2 fairly equal defense pairings which for the Hurricanes requires Justin Faulk to be at the top of his game.
With the Hurricanes still sitting at .500 and 4 points (my math that adjusts for games played) out of playoff position and staring at 3 more road games probably minus Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes need to find a higher gear on the road. 3 points in 3 games would be the good kind of treading water against 3 strong opponents on the road. That would also put the ball on the tee for a run of 4 straight at home and a chance to extend the current 6-game home winning streak.
Can Justin Faulk and partner Ron Hainsey find a higher gear?
Might Bill Peters be forced to break up Slavin/Pesce to try to better balance the blue line with the absence of Jordan Staal?
Can the Hurricanes find a burst of road scoring that reduces the spotlight on the defensive woes?
We will find out starting on Wednesday when the Canes start a burst of 3 road games in 4 days.