The Hurricanes just wrapped up a 4 game home stand with 4 wins. The set of 4 was unanimously a fun batch of entertaining hockey as measured by goal scoring. Those who attended all 4 games at PNC Arena saw a total of 34 goals scored including 21 goals for the good guys in back and forth hockey.
The results which trump everything else were nothing short of perfect.
The games were fun to watch.
But hiding behind the fun and success, I fear there might be a negative trend developing on the defensive side of the puck. The 3 goals against per game does not look too bad considering how many the Canes scored, but against sounder teams, I fear it will not be so easy to just dial up more offense to overcome anything.
What is going on?
I chalk up the Hurricanes recent defensive step backwards to a handful of factors.
1) A reversion to reasonable for Slavin/Pesce
On a more positive note that looks at the full season, I wrote yesterday about the keys to Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce’s tremendous play this season. But that was yesterday. The first pairing duo has not been horrible of late, but they have been more human. After a run of nearly flawless play, both Pesce and Slavin have found themselves in the middle of more than their fair share of goals against recently. Slavin had a bad turnover in the defensive zone for a goal against versus Buffalo. Both Pesce and Slavin were in the middle of a couple sloppily defended breakaways, 1 against the Blue Jackets and 1 against the Islanders. Pesce was also the player who was pick pocketed cleanly behind the net by Bergeron who quickly fed Marchand for a snipe in the Boston game. To their credit, the duo has offset some of the wild play defensively by also being part of the scoring surge. But that said, recent play even by Slavin/Pesce does offer significant room for tightening up defensively. And with Pittsburgh and Washington who are locked up in a wild 7-7 tie as a write this, some great challenges are nearing on the schedule.
2) A notch lower from Cam Ward
To a large degree, Ward has been facing a tougher challenge in net with the wide open and loose play at times in recent games. But he like Slavin and Pesce has also been more human after a near flawless run of goaltending at the end of 2016. Over the 4-game home stand, he allowed goals on puck handling ‘oopses’ against both Boston and Buffalo. He has also been beaten twice on short side goals reminiscent of his early struggles and also had a blast off the rush beat him through a hole. Rough math comes to about 1 soft goal per game of late. Important to note is that the flip side of a handful of goals that Ward would probably want back is that he has held up very well and made a number of good saves during a period of hockey where the team in front of him was at times trading chances. While I do not think 2-way pond hockey is a recipe for long-term success, Ward was good enough to win in all 4 games, and I also think it is fair to say that he was better than the goalie at the other end of the ice in all 4 games. That is saying something and is a positive contribution toward winning which counts just as much even if the short-term formula is a little odd. Based on what we have seen thus far in 2016-17, I think it is reasonable to hope and expect that if the team in front of him can get back to giving him manageable games that his play will also revert back to the high level from very recently.
3) The temporary disappearance of the Jordan Staal checking line
First, it is important to make note of the massive scoring binge by Jordan Staal’s line led by Brock McGinn over the final 3 games of the game home stretch (when Lindholm joined the line after returning from injury), they have combined for 7 goals and 11 assists. That is absolutely massive scoring production, so much so that it earned Brock McGinn the third star of the week for the entire NHL. And while it is a tremendous development to see the Hurricanes to finally build a scoring line around Jordan Staal, I think a more sustainable version of that line can include a greater amount of old school Jordan Staal shutdown play. Tasked with marking John Tavares on Saturday, Staal’s line failed in that regard. Staal was on the ice for an uncharacteristically high 4 goals against including 3 that included scoring plays for John Tavares. The sub-par shutdown effort was buried beneath the fact that Jordan Staal also being on the ice for 4 goals for. As fun as Saturday was, I think a consistent winning formula will require better play defensively from Staal’s line especially with tough schedule challenges on the road looming.
4) Growing pains from the rapidly improving attacking style of play
This might sound strange, but I actually think the Hurricanes rapid improvement in terms of playing a skating and attacking brand of hockey that creates offense in bunches off the rush has actually created growing pains for the defense. Offensively, the Hurricanes are attacking in waves and in many games generating scoring chances at a rate unlike nothing seen in Raleigh since Peter Laviolette and the 2005-06 season. That is obviously a good thing and also a big step in the direction of where Bill Peters wants to take the team. But when the team wins a puck and transitions to attacking north-south at high speed as a 5-man unit, any kind of turnover has the potential to be a quick rush the other way with it being tough for Canes players to reverse course to defend and also sort things out under duress and often undermanned. Right now, the Hurricanes are still making a few too many puck management mistakes that often lead to a back and forth battle with incredible pace and an exchange of scoring chances. At a basic level, I think the team is very much headed in the right direction, but making progress to the next level has also opened up a brand new set of situations and decision-making points mostly at high speed. The path to better in this regard is to some degree experience and time in the video room to recognize situations and places where it is important to choose simple plays to move the puck forward and/or to low danger places rather than risk having the puck go quickly the other way when all 5 Hurricanes players are pushing forward.
This is not a new one and has actually been much less of a factor of late at home. But with a return to the road, I am including it in this list. I have written multiple times about Hainsey/Faulk’s struggles on the road and the need for them to be better away from home where opposing coaches are running their top scoring line against them. It takes both, not just 1 of the top 2 defense pairings to be playing well to win consistently on the road.
At a more basic level, the Hurricanes have strayed a bit from sound defensive hockey and need to tighten things up to create a more sustainable model for winning.
Tuesday night in Columbus will provide a first look at Coach Bill Peters’ and the team’s ability to keep the surging offense but at the same time tighten things up defensively for a tough stretch of road games.