With eight games remaining, the Carolina Hurricanes clinched the team’s third straight playoff berth. That feat is even more impressive given that the season is only 56 games long. Prorating it is imperfect, but the pace suggests that the Hurricanes might have clinched a playoff spot a three or four weeks before the end of an 82-game season.
The Hurricanes have quickly become a team where success will be measured in the playoffs not based on regular season results. That, in itself, is cause for joy in the Caniac community because it means this team has come an incredibly long way in the three-ish years since Tom Dundon bought the team, Don Waddell became General Manager and Rod Brind’Amour was named the Head Coach.
As noted above, the team has reached the point where success will be measured in the post-season, so today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at preparing for the post-season.
The current trend
The current trajectory of the team is not good. Positive results made the four games in Florida look better than they were, and the overtime loss point against Dallas on Monday was more of the same. The win over Florida last Thursday saw the Hurricanes take a boat load of penalties. Yes, I realize a couple were marginal calls, but that does not change the fact that the Canes were some combination of out of position, slow or lackadaisical defensively on too many occasions. The overtime loss on Saturday was worse. The volume and magnitude of break downs in that game was among the team’s worst of the season. As I said on Twitter afterward, Brind’Amour seemed uncharacteristically annoyed after the game and for good reason. Monday’s overtime loss was more of the same. The Dallas Stars were the better team by a decent margin. The Hurricanes again managed to ride timely scoring to at least collecting an overtime loss point. In the loss, the Canes could find none of the dynamic play that was its hallmark at high points of the 2020-21 season. Put simply, the team needs to find a higher gear for the playoffs.
But is it just the depleted roster?
The team’s marketing and broadcast team like to point to the depleted roster. I am not so sure that is it. The newly-minted fourth line was actually responsible for two of the team’s three goals on Monday and in general has not been a problem. I do think the domino effect of missing Brady Skjei in the #4 defense slot has played a role in the struggles, but I also think there is a significant element of the Canes top players just not being great too.
Half full or half empty?
From the half empty perspective, my biggest fear is that this team peaked early in the year and will be unable to re-find that level. From the half full side, even the somewhat struggling version of this team is capable of playing even or better against good hockey teams which is crazy. That suggests that the ceiling is still incredibly high and that getting healthy and cleaning things up a bit will go a long way toward regaining momentum quickly.
Balancing urgency with safety
With the playoffs assured, Brind’Amour not playing players with minor injuries 100 percent makes sense even if that means having players return after layoffs in the playoffs. But as I said on Twitter after Saturday’s overtime loss to Florida, I think the team could significantly benefit from getting a run of five of six games with a full lineup. That should be enough times for players to shake off rust, Brind’Amour to identify the combinations he wants to use to start the playoffs and the team in total to get back to basics and play the tighter game needed to beat good teams in the playoffs.
The checklist of things to clean up
From the recent struggles, a few basics stand out as areas for improvement leading up to the start of the playoffs.
1) Better judgment/attention to detail defensively
One of the most glaring problems has been the team’s volume and magnitude of errors defensively both in terms of decision-making at the offensive blue line and in the neutral zone and identifying and marking opponents in the defensive zone. The low point of the recent struggles was the utter collapse in the third period of Saturday’s overtime loss including a run of grade A shorthanded chances against and goals.
2) Puck management and support
In addition to struggles without the puck, the Hurricanes have also hit a rough patch in terms of managing the puck especially trying to exit its own end. Veterans, not the fill ins, have been regular culprits in the high volume of turnovers in bad places of late. Because of the inability to recover and defend on turnovers exiting the zone, those are very often catastrophic. There is an element of just making better decisions in this regard, but I also think the forwards need to also be better at deciding when they can fly to the neutral zone trying to quickly stretch the ice in transition versus when defensemen are under duress and need a safe, short pass to help get out of the defensive zone safely.
3) Reducing the penalties
The positive and the negative of Thursday’s win over the Panthers was the same thing. The negative was that the Hurricanes had again relapsed into taking too many unnecessary penalties. The positive was that the team’s top of the NHL special teams again came through. No doubt strong special teams play can help in the playoffs too, but relying night in and night out on penalty kill heroics very likely ends up being a fatal flaw in this regard. A significant element of cleaning this up is just getting players across the board to commit to doing simple things right. There are times when it is necessary or at least somewhat excusable to take a penalty to stop a player with a clear path to a high-end scoring chances, but too many of the Canes penalties are unnecessary obstruction type penalties often in the offensive zone.
4) Commitment to scoring ugly goals
Especially if the Hurricanes meet up with the Stars in the first round, the team needs to stay committed to scoring ugly goals around the crease. Despite the Canes’ ability to also score pretty goals in bunches too, I generally give the team high marks in terms of getting the top of the crease and making things difficult for the opposing goalie. Jesper Fast is incredibly consistent in this regard, and Jordan Staal, Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn have gotten the memo too. But especially in the playoffs, it is even more important to avoid being pushed to the outside. The Stars arguably more than any other team in today’s NHL clear the front of the net and even use a good amount of 70s and 80s old school violence to do so. On Monday, Stars defenders physically moved Foegele and Staal a couple times and in general do a tremendous job walling off sight lines for their goalies. If and when it becomes harder to gain space in front of the net it means it is even more important to succeed in that regard.
Here is hoping the team can regroup a bit and use the next eight games to get back to basics a bit and also find a rhythm with a full roster.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of some of the team’s recent struggles (despite success in the standings), which problem(s) most concern you with the playoffs approaching?
2) To what degree do you pin some of the recent problems on the depleted roster?
3) In a couple sentences, what would you like to see from the Hurricanes in the last few games to suggest that they are ready for the playoffs?