In 5 games, the Carolina Hurricanes have oscillated between good efforts in terms of compete level and abysmal ones.
Game 1 at Nashville – BAD (at least first period)
In the opener in Nashville, it was really just 1 period (that doomed) the game. The Hurricanes rebounded after a slow start and 2-goal deficit to play 2 somewhat better periods of hockey.
Game 2 vs. Detroit – GOOD
Against Detroit in the home opener, you really could not ask for anything else except goal scoring and better goaltending. The Canes dominated possession, shots and everything else in a solid 60-minute effort that deserved but did not get a win.
Game 3 vs. Florida – BAD
The third game against Florida went completely the opposite direction. The Canes were hemmed in their own end, unable to move the puck stick-to-stick and in the end paid the price for it with a 4-1 loss.
Game 4 at Detroit – GOOD
Again against Detroit, the Canes controlled play pretty much throughout the game except for a short stretch late in the second period and in the end were rewarded with a win.
Game 5 at Washington – BAD
It is hard to say if it was the back-to-back or the strong opponent having a good night, but there was not a single stretch of more than a shift or 2 in which the Canes were the better team. Cam Ward made this game look closer than it was for a long time, but ultimately the scoreboard tilted in the direction of the team that deserved.
Is it only compete level?
Good teams seem to have a knack for dialing up the intensity level when they need it most and finding a way. In 2 of the 3 bad outings, once things went astray the Canes never recovered. In the third (the Nashville loss), the Canes did rebound a bit but still never really played good hockey. Coach Bill Peters has been quick to indict the effort level, commitment and anything else related to playing the right way. I do not for a minute deny that there is an element of that, but I also think there is an element of style of play and maybe even a component of being unable to adjust.
Winning the middle of the rink
In addition to the compete level stuff, another thing has jumped out at me. If the Canes win or at least break even in the neutral zone they are fine. When they fail to move the puck through there and instead just volley it out for a line change, the team tends to play too much in its own end which is a recipe for problems for any team.
Help from blue line mostly lost with Wisniewski injury
I think this comes back to 1 of my mantras all summer which was that the greatest path to upgrading the offense could come through significantly improving the ability to move the puck and generate offense from the back end. I was thrilled when Ron Francis added James Wisniewski, but the summer upgrades have quickly gone awry. James Wisniewski’s injury on his first shift forced Michal Jordan up into the top 4 on his off side where he is struggling with handling and moving the puck. The bottom pair of Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy has huge potential in terms of generating offense, but the duo is still wading a bit cautiously into the water trying to keep mistakes to a minimum as they adjust to NHL speed and pressure.
Right back at 2014-15 in terms of challenges moving the puck
The result is a group of defensemen who are not too different from last season in that they are not especially good at moving the puck right now especially when pressured. Couple that with a set of forwards that is a bit undersized and generally does not claim winning pucks on the walls as a strength, and I think the formula is obvious for teams with size, skating and a strong forecheck game. The game is to get the puck deep into the offensive zone, play behind the net and on the walls and bang bodies. To defeat this style of play, the Canes must first win a puck battle (disadvantage), quickly make a first pass (challenging) and then move the puck through the neutral zone (also challenging).
Difficulty against big, strong forechecking teams
I think Florida is the best example of a tough match up for the Canes. The Panthers brought size and strength in the form of players who can skate. The result was that the Canes struggled to go 2 for 2 in winning a puck battle and then quickly moving the puck to create the speed necessary to back up the forecheck. Instead, even when the Canes did win a puck, they were deliberate which just gave the Panthers time to push to the front of the neutral zone and take it back. Both of the Canes 2 good games came against a Detroit team that plays much more of a puck possession/skill game and moves the puck from stick to stick.
Need to tweak system instead of repeatedly pinning it all on playing harder
While I do think effort is part of the issue, I think it is also on Bill Peters and his staff to adjust the system a bit. I think the biggest thing is to provide the defensemen with more immediate, shorter passing outlets by having the forwards come back a bit. The passes from inside the face-off dots to outside the blue line just are not connecting under duress. If the Canes can more quickly get the puck on a second stick that has some speed heading into the neutral zone, then the opposing defensemen and forecheckers will need to back up a bit which will create more room through the neutral zone. The Canes have centers who are pretty good at carrying the puck, so this is doable, it is just a matter of getting the forwards to make themselves available for a quick first pass.