The greatest positive on Friday was probably that the Canes at least got the holiday weekend right winning at home on Wednesday and choosing the road game Friday for the clunker.
The 4-1 loss in Buffalo did a pretty solid job with the checklist of regular Canes struggles thus far in the 2015-16 season and added an extra big negative. From the ‘regular struggles’ list, the Canes generally controlled play but had nothing to show for it on the score board. The other team’s goalie was better. And the Canes power play offered no help. The big addition was the way the Canes seemed to pack things up and implode after going down a goal. In most of the Canes disappointing losses, the team has at least tried to push late. And recently the Canes have successfully clawed back on multiple occasions to at least get points in the standings (off the top of my head Ottawa win and Philadelphia OTL on Monday).
On Friday, the Hurricanes start was nothing special, but the team built momentum throughout the first period. The Canes were generally winning the territorial battle and continued to do so after a deflected Josh Georges shot trickled by Cam Ward on the short side and into the net 9 minutes into the game. The first period ended with the Canes dominating shot counts and any other statistics but trailing 1-0. The Canes clawed back to even when Eric Staal carried the puck to the front of net with authority and a rebound ultimately found its way to line mate Victor Rask who buried it. Things seemed to go south when Jack Eichel picked off a pass in the neutral zone, entered the offensive zone 1 -on-4 and seemingly with few options. From the top of the face-off circle, Eichel fired what seemed to be a fairly harmless shot from the top of the face-off circle and cleanly beat Ward who seemed to be going down early. At the point when Eichel score, the shots on goal were tilted 21 to 10 in favor of the Canes. From there, the Canes seemed to collapse. Ward let in another iffy goal on a deflection from a ways out near the end of the second period, and after playing 2 decent periods, the Canes barely showed up for the third and the Sabres won going away 4-1.
A few player and other notes:
1) Decided in net
Chad Johnson was the better goalie by a wide margin. Johnson held the fort early while seeing the higher volume and higher quality of scoring chances while Ward saw little action and was beaten 3 times on shots where he at a minimum had a chance. One cannot pin the entire loss on Ward, but the differential in goalie play was the single greatest contributing factor in deciding the game.
2) Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin
The positive highlight of the game for me was the play of Hanifin/Slavin and especially Jaccob Slavin. The duo was noticeably good especially early and seems to be developing some chemistry playing together and moving the puck together.
Slavin’s game was not perfect. He turned the puck over to Eichel in the neutral zone (not a bad 1) and was the player in front of Eichel when he ripped his shot past Ward. Slavin’s defense was not horrible on the play. He stayed in front of him and gave up only a shot from atop the face-off circle. But with Eichel entering the zone by himself and with defensive help in tow, I think ideally Slavin would have stepped up into a shorter gap to either take away the shot or get a stic in the shooting lane. But that is simply to say that he does have room to improve.
Overall, I continue to really like Slavin’s game. What stands out most is how comfortable he is playing with the puck on his stick and his mindset when he has it there. Whereas Pesce, Hanifin and even to some degree Murphy 1.0 leaned toward staying out of trouble, making simple plays and playing the puck efficiently, Slavin continues to look different to me. His game does not look much like ‘move the puck/stay out of trouble.’ Instead it has more of the Joni Pitkanen ‘move the puck when you have a good chance to create something – otherwise keep it.’
Sound defense is a minimum requirement for a top 4 defenseman, but it is this offense creation mentality (and hopefully success) that represents the upside for the Canes blue line. With the style of play, skating ability and talent of the young group of defensemen, the goal is not just to be decent defensively. The goal is to drive offense and winning. Each of the rookie defensemen has his merits. Each has significant upside from where he is now. But Jaccob Slavin is the 1 of the 3 who looks closest to playing an attacking and creative style that dials up the team’s scoring across the board. To his credit in this regard on Friday night were multiple times with him moving laterally in the offensive one with the puck on his stick assessing things and settling for a shot only after taking a moment or 2 to see what was available. He also continues to carry the puck deep when the opportunity presents itself and there is not good option to move the puck in a way to potentially create offense sooner.
Not to be slighted was Slavin’s partner Noah Hanifin who also had a solid game. He continues to look increasingly comfortable, and I also like the idea of letting Hanifin/Slavin run together on a game by game basis, so they can learn together.
Even on a tough night, the story of the developing defense continues to be a fun 1 to track.
3) Victor Rask – the anti-Cane
Victor Rask does not seem to be getting an especially high volume of scoring chances, but he continues to be in the right place near the net often enough and along with Justin Faulk seems to finish whenever given the chance. He notched his seventh on Friday and is suddenly on target for a very respectable 25 over 82 games.
4) Disappointing deflation
The hardest thing for me to stomach in Friday’s loss was the way the Canes seemed to never rebound from the Jack Eichel goal. The goal only put Buffalo up 2-1, and there was still 28 minutes to go in the game, but the Canes seemed out of it from that point forward.
After a run of games mostly against other teams trying to build toward the future, the schedule next turns to more games against the teams who are already there. The Canes play on the road against the New York Rangers on Monday and get the Montreal Canadiens at home on Saturday sandwiched around the Devils on Thursday. Here is hoping that the Canes can use the tough opponents as motivation to find their highest level of play.