The Carolina Hurricanes had been productive prior to Thursday’s game in Calgary going 2-1-1, but through four games I would not say that the team had really found a winning model that was repeatable. The season opening win was fun but was not great defensively or in net. The next two games featured a power outage offensively and netted only a single point via late-game Jeff Skinner heroics. And Tuesday’s 5-3 win over Edmonton looked great at the headline level, but in my opinion was actually a step in the wrong direction in terms of style and quality of play. The Hurricanes uncharacteristically lost the shot and possession battles by a wide margin and rode a combination of strong play in net by Cam Ward and highly efficient and opportunistic scoring to a win that they probably did not deserved.
But Thursday’s win in Calgary was a different story. By no means was the game perfect, but I think it was the best game that the team played in terms of playing a solid game that featured what could be a repeatable format that matches their skill set and identity.
The Hurricanes played fast and aggressive in all three zones making lie miserable for the Flames in terms of winning, keeping or advancing the puck. Despite only scoring two goals, the Hurricanes generated a decent number of chances both at even strength and on the power play. The Hurricanes were generally sound defensively, and goalie Scott Darling was strong when he needed to be but not overtaxed. The net result was a game in which the Hurricanes used speed and assert play to create more and better chances offensively, made the opponent work hard to earn a lower volume and quality of chances and then had a strong last line of defense in net to make it even tougher on the opponent.
For a team built more for speed and less for physical play and with an increasing amount of skill and that is part way through a transformation that sees its defense become its top strength, I think Thursday’s game is pretty close to what the Hurricanes need to do on an every game (or near every game basis) to push up into the top half of the NHL.
Aside from evaluation of level of play, the results continue to be worth noting. Even if Saturday nets a loss, the Hurricanes will return for the four-game road trip with a very respectable 2-2 record. And even with a Saturday loss, the Hurricanes will be playing at a 96-point pace through six games including four on the road which is a playoff pace.
Not surprisingly, my ‘what I’m watching’ for Saturday’s game is chock full of trying to repeat Thursday’s effort.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Dallas Stars
1) More of the same in net
Breaking from struggles in net in recent years, the Hurricanes netminding has been a positive for four consecutive games. Darling’s’ 1-1-1 mark in his last three starts is unfair given the fact that he has allowed only a paltry 1, 2 and 1 goals respectively in regulation in his last three starts. In a league where the goal is generally to score three and give up two, that is plenty good enough. Similarly portrayed incorrectly by the headline statistics, Ward was good and a key part of Tuesday’s win despite giving up three goals behind a team that did not play well that night. I lean toward going back to Ward after his strong start on Tuesday to keep him in the mix and to use stretches when both goalies are playing well to keep Darling’s workload reasonable. But the alternative of instead slotting Ward for half of the back-to-back set next Thursday and Friday also makes sense. Regardless of who plays Saturday, I will be watching to see if the netminding which has been a recent strength can continue.
2) More/new participants on offense
One of the significant but underlying changes underway right now is the realization of the benefits of depth at the forward position. Only a couple years ago, a player like Teuvo Teravainen would have easily slotted somewhere between #4 and #6 on a scoring depth chart. And the players who slotted #7 through #10 were reaches like Chris Terry, Riley Nash, Patrick Dwyer, Andrej Nestrasil, Joakim Nordstrom and others many of who were borderline NHLers or at a minimum would be slotted somewhere between #11 and #13 on teams with more scoring depth. The Hurricanes are maybe still light on top-end scoring talent, but the depth in the bottom of the middle of the forward group is significantly better. Teuvo Teravainen has really only had a single standout game offensively, but his two early goals on Tuesday were a huge factor in propelling the Hurricanes to a win. Justin Williams has been an odd version of quiet offensively not so much making highlight reel plays but still leading the team in scoring with enough good plays and the help of scoring-capable line mates. Either of Brock McGinn or Janne Kuokkanen who have been in and out of the lineup have more scoring potential than the team has head on the bench in years.
At a more general level, the Hurricanes are making progress in terms of having 8-10 players in the lineup with a reasonable chance of scoring. As demonstrated by the power outage in games two and three, it is not the same as having a pure, high-end scoring line that leads the way on a nightly basis, but there are at least more players with the potential to be an offensive leader in a win like Teravainen did on Tuesday even if it is on an intermittent basis.
On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes offense can continue to come in waves. Skinner has actually not hit one of those stretches where he is just dominant and dangerous every shift, but his three goals in five games is still an impressive pace. Jordan Staal is clicking offensively right now. Teravainen is only a couple games removed from his two-goal outburst. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if a player or two from Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm or Victor Rask who have been quiet in recent games be the next to chip in and further the Hurricanes’ ‘scoring by committee and depth’ approach.
3) Building confidence across the blue line and managing minutes
I am on record as being generally positive on Bill Peters, but if pressed to make a short list of areas where he could have been better in 2016-17, somewhere near the top of the list would be managing the goalies. I will skip the long version of this which I wrote up previously, but I think one takeaway from the overdone stretch of running Cam Ward each every game and his subsequent drop in level of play is the importance of finding a balance between doing whatever it takes to collect two points each and every night but also being careful to consider the physical challenges of a long and grinding 82-game NHL season.
Tuesday and Thursday’s wins both featured a heavy dose of ‘just run Slavin/Pesce out there again.’ Jaccob Slavin playe 27:34 on Tuesday which is a HUGE amount of ice time, especially for a non-overtime game. He followed that up with another 24:53 on Thursday. Slavin is averaging 24:57 of ice time through five games which maybe does not sound like a drastic increase from the 23:26 that he averaged in 2016-17 and seemed to finish fine. But there is some ceiling where it becomes too much and takes a toll, and given how critical Slavin is to the team’s defense, I would be careful not to push limits too far. Brett Pesce is in a somewhat similar boat averaging 22:48 thus far in 2017-18 which is up from 21:12 in 2016-17. Also worth noting is that neither player sees much time on the power play but does play on the penalty kill which means that their minutes are slightly more taxing that the usual defenseman workhorse model where the player logs some amount of power play time which is less taxing.
The return of Trevor van Riemsdyk is a significant boost which could help. It is also somewhat easier to spread minutes at home where Peters can pick match ups. And there is some amount of doing what it takes to get two points that makes sense. But at the end of the day, Peters does need to be careful that he does not run Slavin and/or Pesce into a physical wall like I think he did with Ward last season.
So while mostly rooting for ‘whatever it takes to get any kind of win’ on a nightly basis, I will also be watching to see what degree the other defense earn, receive and reward trust from Bill Peters, and I will also be watching to see if Peters can keep Slavin and Pesce’s minutes to a manageable level most notes.
The puck drops at 8pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.