This was originally written before the road opener in Toronto and then bumped back a day to address the Michael Leighton call up. I left the article in original pre-Maple Leafs game form and added a few comments based on what I saw in Tuesday’s game.
Just before the Hurricanes just completed 5-game home stand started, I wrote and article entitled “Next leg of Carolina Hurricanes season is a critcal one. That post stated the obvious that the team could not afford to dig too much deeper of a hole before finding themselves facing an impossible challenge just like happened in 2015-16.
The team navigated the 5-game run incredibly well going 4-1 and climbing above the .500 mark. In yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I gave credit to both Ron Francis and Bill Peters for working what they had at their disposal to make the home stand a success.
Past the obvious need to collect points and move up the standings, I think the winning stretch showed 2 things. First is that the Hurricanes are capable of playing a much sounder brand of hockey than they played in the first few weeks of the season. Second and somewhat related is that with the capability of dictating match ups on home ice Peters can boost the level of play of his team.
Next up, the Hurricanes schedule turns dramatically. The previous stretch did feature high-quality competition, but it was also completely at home and spaced out nicely with no back-to-back games and with 3 of the 5 opponents coming in after playing and traveling the night before. Over the next 19 days, the Hurricanes will play 11 games of which 9 are on the road and 6 are part of back-to-back sets.
Aside from the physical part of it with the travel and also the home cooking and home crowd advantage, the shift from home to road actually changes the rules in the NHL. The home team having last change on face-offs empowers the home team’s coach to dictate who plays against whom. So on home ice, the game is about identifying favorable match ups, working to make them happen on the ice and exploiting them. On the road, the game is about having a lineup that is sound and solid from top to bottom such that there are no big weaknesses to be exploited by match ups.
Specifically for the Hurricanes, here are a couple things I will be watching closely during the front part of the road-heavy schedule that lies ahead:
1) Will Peters need to adjust the lineup?
Best guess is that Peters will start the road swing with the same lineup he has used for the past couple games. And why not? It has been winning. But once opposing coaches get a few rounds at trying to exploit match ups, will Peters need to tinker a bit to solidify things?
NOTE post Leafs’ game: As one would expect entering with a 4-game win streak, the initial try was to use a similar lineup. It worked well and passed its first test.
2) Will Peters still play Staal’s line with Slavin/Pesce or decouple his best defensive sets?
I think 1 change that could happen will be an untethering of Staal’s line and the top defense pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. At home, Peters largely chose to play his best 5 defensively against the other team’s best scoring line. On the road, the opposing coach will likely steer around this match up, so it might make sense to split the group to better balance the level of defense on the ice with the top defense pair sometimes helping the lesser lines and Jordan Staal providing support for lesser defense pairings. It is just a hunch, but I think this is 1 change we could see.
Note post Leafs’ game: As expected, Peters chose to separate Slavin/Pesce from Staal’s line for the most part. Peters started with Staal’s line and Hainsey/Faulk and though the old friends did see each other occasionally, Peters’ preference seemed to be to use Slavin/Pesce with the other lines to balance things out defensively.
3) Can McGinn/Ryan/Stempniak survive tough match ups?
I would guess that opposing coaches will look to challenge this line that has 2 players who are light on NHL experience. Can the line hold its own defensively and start counterattacking on the score sheet? The home stretch offers support for good and bad. On the one hand, despite not notching a goal yet, I think this trio has been pretty good in terms of generating scoring chances when playing in the offensive zone. If they keep doing what they have been doing, the scoring should come. On the other hand, the line did have some challenges being hemmed in its own end and unable to win and advance the puck. This is obviously a recipe for trouble against opposing scoring lines.
Notes post Leafs’ game: Both of the bottom 2 lines held their own defensively on Tuesday, and 3 of the Canes 5 scoring points on a light 2-goal night went to bottom 6 forwards. So far, so good.
4) Ditto for Hanifin/Tennyson
Since Matt Tennyson stepped into the spot next to Noah Hanifin, the pair has been pretty good together. But that was on home ice when Peters could be selective in terms of match ups and situations. On the road, Hanifin/Tennyson will inevitably find itself on the ice against tougher competition. Can the duo play sound hockey and get on and off the ice without incident against scoring lines?
Notes post Leafs’ game: Matt Tennyson played an incredibly good game on Tuesday, especially in his own end. He and Hanifin were solid and were not picked on with Babcock’s home ice ability to try to exploit match ups.
5) Has the team improved or was it just Peters pulling levers?
I think most interesting at a higher level will be to see if the Hurricanes look like the same team that just won on home ice. It looks like and feels like the team is just playing better hockey. If that is the case, it should travel reasonably well. But is it possible that the better play was more a result of Peters home ice maneuvering and not so much the level of play transformation that we think we saw? This burning question is what I will be trying to answer over the next 2-3 games.
Notes post Leafs’ game: Early indications after 1 game are that the Carolina Hurricanes have legitimately improved from their road struggles early in the season.