Last week was a frustrating week for Hurricanes fans. The team played reasonably well based on any/all shot and possession stats against the Rangers on Tuesday but lost when the Rangers made a few key plays and the Hurricanes did not. On Thursday against Minnesota the Canes dominated the first period but gave up a late goal to exit the period up only 2-1. The Canes ultimately lost in overtime. Then on Saturday the team again ran out to a 2-0 lead only to see a bad angle shot beat Ward give the Flyers hope and a dominant Flyers’ third period push the game to overtime where the Canes again lost.
There have been some elements worth keeping in the Canes recent string of losses, and one could make a good argument that the team was only a few plays away from winning 2 of the 3 games. But in a game where 1 goal often decides defeat versus victory, it is very much about putting the whole package together for 60 minutes and importantly making a few key plays when needed. The Canes have struggled with both of these.
They get another chance Monday against an Anaheim team that figured to be near the top of the Western Conference but is struggling thus far in the 2015-16 season.
Here is what I will be watching Monday night in Raleigh:
1) Rusty or ready Eddie
Eddie Lack is the confirmed starter for tonight. He has yet to really play his way into anything more than an untrusted backup role. He was okay in his first start but had a mistake and also got no help in losing 4-1 to Florida in early October. In his next start the wheels came off when 3 pucks leaked through him and into the net against San Jose causing him to be pulled at the midway point of the game. He since rebounded with a decent effort and a 3-2 overtime win against the Islanders and lost 4-1 to the Stars in a game where he was not great but not horrible either. Ward has been average at best in his last couple starts, so the door seems to be cracked wide open for Lack to play a good game and win another start if he can play well. Will he look like a goalie who is settling in and ready to go on a run? Or will he look like the rusty goalie struggling mightily with rebound control and still trying to find his way in 2015-16?
2) Moving the puck against an aggressive forecheck
The Canes had a couple games early (Nashville opener and Florida loss a few days later) in which teams went all in forechecking the Canes defense daring them to make a quick pass or 2 to spring odd men rushes the other way. The Canes could not and the inability to clear their own zone to do much more than change lines was a key component in both of those losses. Then that problem seemed to go away a bit possibly do to the stabilization of the D pairings with Pesce’s insertion into the lineup next to Liles in the spot previously held by Jordan. But the problem was back in full force in both of the 2 most recent losses. After being dominated in the first period, the Minnesota Wild adjusted in the second period and sent 2 to the puck on the forecheck trying to quickly take away the obvious passing lanes. It worked. The Canes spent the period hemmed in their own end, lost the period 1-0 and failed to get much going offensively. When the Flyers dialed up desperate and deep on their forecheck in the third period on Saturday, they too were rewarded and completely dominated the period when the Canes could not adjust and move the puck.
With recent tape out on this, a big forechecking Anaheim team in town and Ryan Murphy, who is 1 of the Canes better defenseman at skating to move the puck past the first layer of defense, out, we can expect to see Anaheim go to this formula. Can the Canes make plays from deep in their own end to get behind the first layer of defense and even generate speed through the neutral zone? Or are they destined to be hemmed in their own end just trying to get the puck out and survive?
Per #2, with Murphy out it looks like we will again see the adventure of Michal Jordan trying to handle the puck on his off side, and this time it is with rookie Noah Hanifin who has largely deferred to his primary partner, Ryan Murphy, in this regard. This has the potential to be a new challenge and a step forward for Noah Hanifin. It also has the potential to be a train wreck. Which will it be?
4) Key players making plays
As noted in the preamble, the Hurricanes have generally been creating enough shots and even decent scoring chances. But goal scoring has still been pegged at 2 or less. The difference between 2 and 4 right now seems to be a function of puck luck and or clutch finishing. On the positive side, that seems doable. On the negative side, it falls under that weird combination of mental, momentum, confidence, psychological and all of those other things that you cannot just practice and improve upon.
In this regard, as long as Jeff Skinner is playing around the net, finding the puck on his stick and getting scoring chances, I will continue to think that he is on the brink of breaking out per my Daily Cup of Joe post for earlier today. Here is hoping that break out is today.
When I boil it down, I want to see how the Canes react when the Ducks dial up the forecheck pressure and whether Eddie Lack looks comfortable or still trying to fight his way into the 2015-16 season rhythm and confidence-wise. Positive reads on those 2 things early spawn optimism despite the recent losing streak.