On Thursday night, the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Penguins in Pittsburgh and in resounding fashion by a 4-0 margin.
Not surprisingly based on the score, the game was an impressive one in many ways and had virtually nothing that one could even try to nitpick as a negative. But over the course of a long NHL season in a league with parity and also weird single game swings based on scheduling, backup goalies, injuries and the general ups and downs of each and every team, more often than not a win is just a win and two points which is a good thing obviously. But rarely does it represent much more than that.
Based on that, I try (and I think generally do a decent job) of not overreacting to single games no matter how horrible (the recent 8-1 loss the Maple Leafs) or how tremendous (yesterday’s 4-0 whooping of the Penguins on the road).
But as I already talked about briefly in the game recap which you can find HERE, I think this game has the potential to mean more and represent another key milestone and turning point in the Hurricanes in-process transformation from regular NHL draft lottery participant to regular NHL playoff competitor.
I say that because I think the game was a significant departure from the team’s struggles in recent years such that it represents a change in mentality, confidence and a bunch of other hard to measure but incredibly important intangible qualities that winning teams always seem to possess in some weird, fuzzy, hard to put a finger on aura of a way.
The kind of game that the NEVER seem to win
Perhaps it is just the tough times from eight straight years of playoff misses bubbling up to the top of my memory, but in games against good teams when the Hurricanes could really use a nice surprise and a win, the Hurricanes track record in recent years has not been good. Whereas good teams often find a way to win when they need to, the Hurricanes have too often found a way to lose games like this.
After a nice surge that boosted the Hurricanes into wild card position, the team had lost two straight and was staring at two really tough road match ups against Tampa Bay and Boston who are the strength of the Atlantic Division recently with roughly 80 percent winning percentages in their last 10 games. As such, the Hurricanes really needed a win to assure that the current skid was cut short and to stay at least in the treading water range for the tough schedule during the front part of January.
In addition, the game was on the road against a good (even if struggling a bit right now) hockey team in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Finally, the game was not the variety whereby the Hurricanes fly out of the gate with ease and the game looks easy like it does sometimes. Rather, the Penguins were better early and though the Hurricanes did do a decent job of matching pace and not giving up too much, the start seemed to suggest that the Penguins could have the upper hand on the night.
So in summary, the game was one of those that just seemed to have a deck of multiple small things stacked against the Hurricanes. But maybe uncharacteristically, the Hurricanes prevailed, avoided increasing duress from a growing losing streak and maybe even beat historical odds in the process.
The Hurricanes were better
Another thing that jumps out about the win has to do with my previous sentence when I said “…maybe even beat historical odds in the process.” When the Hurricanes did occasionally win a needed game like Thursday’s, it always felt like an upset. The games were often the variety where the Hurricanes got off to a good start and/or caught a couple breaks early and then ‘held on for a win’ or ‘survived’ or similar. The tone of how those games were described was always that of an underdog who was lucky to steal two points from a better team.
To be clear, the ultimate decision on who is best is made in making and winning in the playoffs, so a single game regardless of how impressive it was does not yield any kind of final verdict on the Hurricanes versus the Penguins. But even still, the way the Hurricanes won on Thursday was impressive. From the second period on, the Hurricanes were very clearly the better team. They took it to the Penguins throughout the second period. Maybe even more impressively, when the Penguins pushed briefly to start the third period, instead of going into a shell and entering cling to a lead survival mode, the Hurricanes counter-punched and knocked the Penguins out.
Thursday’s win was not the variety where the Hurricanes stole a game as an underdog, caught a few breaks early and held on or got lucky. They flat outplayed the Penguins which looks even more impressive when you add the fact that the Hurricanes are now 2-0 against the Penguins in 2017-18.
Swagger, confidence and attitude
Venturing into the fuzzy world of interpreting intangibles, my feeling from watching the vast majority of Hurricanes games for a long time is that the team could finally be developing the confidence and attitude of a winner.
When the Penguins were better for stretches of the first period, the Hurricanes did not seem flustered or under duress. They matched Pittsburgh for pace and compete level such that whatever advantage the Penguins gained was small.
Similarly, when the Penguins inevitably dialed up their intensity in an effort to push back into the game in the third period, the Hurricanes looked unflappable. Cam Ward did make a few saves to hold the fort, but the Hurricanes did not do the death spiral whereby they play the majority of the third period in survival mode. Rather, just like good teams do, the Hurricanes opportunistically counter-punched and put the game away.
I think some of this comes from the Hurricanes of 2017-18 being a much better and deeper team than in recent years such that they can better go toe to toe with good teams even when they dial their game up. But I also think some of it just comes from confidence and playing with the expectation of winning even during or after a tough shift.
I will readily admit that the prospect of identifying games as turning points shortly after the end of a good game is treacherous. Those kinds of predictions are fraught with positive bias from overappreciating the most recent result during a long up and down NHL season. And it is also important to consider that the Penguins are still trying to find their game in 2017-18. The Penguins were 5-8 in their last 13 games, so it is not as if the Hurricanes knocked off a Penguins team that is playing anywhere close to an elite level right now.
What say you Canes fans?
Especially after sleeping on it and coming down off the high of whooping the Penguins in Pittsburgh, I would love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on whether this game was or at least could be something more than a single big win.