Undeniable success so far
Through four games, the Carolina Hurricanes are 3-0-1. By virtue of that strong start, the Hurricanes are one of only four teams that have not lost yet. The team is also tied for second in the entire NHL with seven points in the standings. And most significantly, though it is early, the early trend is that the team will not enter the end of year holiday season having already dug a hole.
In terms of establishing a new attitude, culture or whatever you want to call it, the start is also meaningful. This team has yet to lose with Rod Brind’Amour in the head coaching role. Sure, six of the game were preseason affairs, but when trying to build new habits everything counts, so an 8-0-2 mark should go a long way toward making winning the new normal.
With a win or overtime loss on Friday, the Hurricanes will have a five-game point streak which is something the ‘one step forward two steps back’ 2017-18 team did only once through the entire season.
More succinctly, the team has done incredibly well in terms of collecting points which in the end is how playoff berths get decided.
A strength and style of play have been established and yielded positive results
From the opening puck drop in preseason, the identity of this team has been an ears pinned back, attacking style from the forwards. The forecheck and three zone puck hounding has very often overwhelmed the opponent and tilted the ice into the offensive zone. And even when it has broken down, the Hurricanes have been able to find a good combination of using the same pace and aggressiveness to recover quickly or otherwise quickly make it up by posting another goal.
Brind’Amour has said that he is willing to trade some structure for tenacity at least earl on. When considering the team’s lineup, strengths and weaknesses, the style makes a ton of sense. With two goalies (now three with Curtis McElhinney now in the mix) coming off rough 2017-18 campaigns, playing to win 2-1 seems fraught with risk. Further, a lineup with five rookie forwards is a long shot to play the kind of error free hockey that makes low scoring a preference. Instead, Brind’Amour’s style looks to capitalize on the players’ young legs and increasing volume of skill in the lineup. And thus far it has worked perfectly.
But with some holes
One might think that based on the 3-0-1 record that the Carolina Hurricanes have been firing on all cylinders out of the gate. I actually think that is far from the truth.
The team has ridden a positive ‘find a way’ attitude and a bunch of scoring to wins, but a deeper assessment of the Canes level of play yields multiple underlying issues.
First, the team has benefited significantly from the generosity of opposing netminding. I am on record as more or less calling the 8-5 win over the Rangers a mess with minimal redeeming qualities other than a fun home win. Alexandar Georgiev was a sieve in net which played a significant role in the Hurricanes win that overcame a good amount of sloppiness from the Canes too. The 5-3 win over the Canucks on Tuesday was maybe not as extreme, but that game also featured generous netminding from the opponent that helped in overcoming more defensive break downs.
Second, the team’s strong special teams play from preseason has not yet carried over to the regular season. The Hurricanes are essentially scoreless on the power play with their 1 goal in 10 tries being an empty-netter. Further, the team has successfully killed off only 10 of 14 penalties for a minus 3 goal differential for special teams.
Finally, it is not clear that the Hurricanes have found a long path forward in terms of goaltending. Petr Mrazek has been ‘meh’ at best in his two regular season starts. After a hamstring injury, Scott Darling faces the tough task of parachuting into the 2018-19 season probably 10 to 15 games into it. And the current mail carrier in net, Curtis McElhinney, is a journeyman backup who has averaged 14 starts per season over the past three years, which makes it unlikely that he is the answer for the bulk of the work load in 2018-19.
In short, I think the Hurricanes success thus far has been more opportunistic than solid and more fortuitous than a repeatable formula.
Which is it?
Has Rod Brind’Amour devised a winning formula that while a bit uneven and imperfect is actually repeatable because the team’s aggressive forecheck and puck hounding are just so difficult for opposing teams to play against? Or have the Hurricanes just benefited from the perfect storm of lesser competition, opponents without a ton of strength in terms of the puck and porous goaltenders?
The upcoming test could be a good indication
I think the upcoming test of three road games could answer that question. The Hurricanes next take to the road to play the Minnesota Wild, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning. The run features three good teams, especially in Winnipeg and Tampa Bay who should be considered among the likely Cup contenders based on 2017-18 play.
The run features three challenges that seem to directly attack some of the holes that I identified above. All three teams have decent or better goaltending. All three teams have a blue line capable of moving the puck to get behind an aggressive forecheck and in position to attack with numbers.
Finally, the run features three good teams that can both score and stop scoring. So if the Hurricanes are sloppy and have too many break downs, the chances are good that the opponents will both capitalize on what is given to them and also be able to tighten things up if they get a lead.
My two cents
It pains me to say it, and I will be thrilled to be proven wrong, but I think the Hurricanes will struggle through large chunks of the next three games.
My thinking is that the caliber of team that the Hurricanes are facing in the next three games will make the Canes pay dearly for miscues especially in transition and will be better able to move the puck through the forward-leaning forecheck and then attack with speed through the middle of the ice. Vancouver managed to get quickly behind the forecheck and attack. The Hurricanes tend to get two deep quickly on the forecheck which is what yields the aggressive style that has caused much of the early season success. But the early iteration of Brind’Amour’s system and style of play also has a tendency to have all three forwards hounding the puck deep with more triage than structure defending the neutral zone behind the forecheck when it does not yield a turnover or at least slow the opponent coming out of its own end. Against three teams that can move the puck from the back end and with a decent amount of game film to find the holes and paths to the neutral zone, I think the Hurricanes will be alternating more between causing duress and facing it. Finally, on the road and without the last change, the team could see its younger players face more challenging match ups.
I would not go so far as to predict a three-game losing streak. There is legitimacy to the Hurricanes early season success. But I will go out on a limb and say that the Hurricanes will get lit up in one of the three upcoming games and return to earth a bit as good teams figure out how to get behind the forward-leaning forecheck.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do my concerns about underlying issues with the four games to date and the caliber of opponent coming up next represent paranoid fear based on past failures? Or do you think there could be some element of truth to the upcoming games proving challenging?
2) Who wants to take the 100 percent positive side and say that the pace and intensity will continue to outweigh and overcome any mistakes?
3) What do you predict for results for the next three games?