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A #CanesCoaster of a season has seen its share of ups and downs across the board
The Carolina Hurricanes 2017-18 season has been a roller coaster ride with a many a sudden twist and turn. Just when the trajectory seems unmistakably upward a deflating losing streak like last week seems to come out of nowhere. But seemingly just before team reaches its breaking point, every losing streak seems to end with a burst of wins just like the current three-game winning streak. No doubt Hurricanes fans have seen a team that could battle for last in the league on multiple occasions but have also seen utterly dominant games and strong stretches that suggest a playoff return is imminent.
Along the way, Canes fans have seen all kinds of good and bad.
The goaltending has seen Cam Ward put together some strong stretches of play and the goaltending duo lead the way to wins in both halves of back-to-backs on three occasions. But Canes fans have also seen Scott Darling hit a lower that was lower than anyone could have imagined.
On offense, the team has had a handful of massive goal-scoring outbursts in single games and even short stretches when it looked like the offense might be clicking. But the team currently ranks 24th in the NHL for goals scored and has seen more struggles than surges offensively even recently.
Finally, there is the young blue line — the blue line that for a couple years now has been expected to eventually become the team’s top strength and the catalyst for the next leg up in the Carolina Hurricanes rebuild and revitalization. And just like the rest of the team, the young blue line has seen incredibly high highs but also matched them with similarly low lows. There have been nights when the Hurricanes defense just looks like wave after wave of lab-engineered defenseman clones with each player possessing equal size, skating ability and skill. But there have been other nights when Fleury looked like a rookie, Hanifin happened upon another ‘train wreck’ game defensively, Faulk just looked a step slow and defensive break downs abounded here, there and everywhere.
Making sense of it and searching for a catalyst for it all
The rapid pace at which things go from good to bad and then back to good has been dizzying at times and because of that it all seems completely random at times. But when I parse through it all trying to make sense of it, I really think the play of the young defense corps is quite often the driver for everything else.
Important to note is that I still think getting at least serviceable goaltending is the single most important ingredient for the Hurricanes success during playoff race crunch time. The deficit if the goaltending is sub-par is just too much to make up on too many nights. But I actually think the blue line has a significant role in that too.
When the Hurricanes defense is on, it tends to drive everything else everything else.
The Hurricanes are 9-3-2 when a defenseman scores a goal. Maybe even more significant than the significance of offensive production from the blue line is how the group can drive play and make for an easy night for the goalie when they play well. Scott Darling had his best outing in awhile in the team’s 4-1 win over the Canucks on Friday, but the story was not that of Darling standing on his head. Rather, the story was Darling only needing to be sound with very little spectacular required because of how well the defense played. Similarly, I would argue that neither of Cam Ward’s two shutouts were among his best few games. The defense was incredibly stingy in his early January shutout over the Penguins and nearly as good in his recent shutout over the Canadiens.
On the flip side, the young group is still prone to games where they just do not seem to have their skating legs at which point the ability to sort things out in terms of coverage seems to completely evaporate into thin air. There have been a few games where the goalie simply did not have it and was beaten for soft goals, but there have also been a decent number of games where goaltending and blue line struggles went hand in hand. The pair of losses two weekends ago saw break down after break down force the goalies to make repeated saves on grade A chances.
Similarly, on defense the Hurricanes have players who can skate, pass and advance the puck on a good day. On those days, the offense benefits not just from goals scored by the defensemen but also from their ability to move the puck and help gain entry to the offensive zone with possession. The result is more time in the offensive zone where goals happen and not surprisingly oftentimes more goals.
But the Jekyl to go with the offensive catalyst Hyde is a young group of defenseman that can at times regress and play a sloppy brand of hockey that can hem the team in its own end and put pressure on the goalie especially when the break downs creep into the game.
Back to the future
Perhaps not surprisingly, the likely driver of the next wave of success points right back to where it has for awhile now.
In the end, I think the play by the young blue line both puts one foot forward showing where hopefully the team is headed while at the same time has one foot anchored in a past that showed promise but really was not up to NHL snuff yet in terms of every game consistency and the ability to be a positive both offensively and defensively on a nightly basis.
Entering a critical juncture in both the 2017-18 season and the broader project to rebuild the team over the past few years, the near-term outcome could very well be decided by the young blue line. Will the group be able to take a step forward with its back foot and move fully into the future? Or under the pressure of the playoff chase is the group destined to regress and pull its front foot back one more time?
Because of how the play of the blue line has become a catalyst for other areas of the game , especially the goaltending, I think how this sorts out for the remainder of the 2017-18 season could well decide the fate of it.