My starting point for writing tonight’s game recap was taking a few minutes to do something else to step away from the ledge so to speak and then to go back through the schedule to see if I could find worse. Which game is the worst is subjective and also usually impacted by recency of memory, but even still I think Thursday’s loss to the Devils has to rank in 3-4 worst this season. My other NOT favorites were the Panthers on 10/13, Capitals on 10/17 and the Ducks on 11/16. There are other games that looked bad scoreboard-wise, but a couple of those were actually decent efforts sabotaged by shaky goaltending or the usual inability to finish scoring chances.
Thursday seemed to feature a greatest hits of season long problems plus enough extras to make it all-around bad. The Canes goaltending, special teams and ability to finish were sub-par as has been the case in many Canes losses. In addition, the team piled on inability to find much of any kind of spark for the entire 60 minutes, generally disjointed play and the big 4-goal gap.
If this is not rock bottom, it has to be close.
I am not a fan of old-school hockey that saw things get unnecessarily crazy in situations like this, nor do I care for staged fighting or a run of cheap shots. But within the context of what is still allowed by today’s NHL standards, I actually appreciated that the Hurricanes players were visibly frustrated with the situation. I took small solace in Eric Staal taking a clean run at Eric Gelinas who hit Andrej Nestrasil into the boards, Brad Malone trying to spark his team with a fight and Justin Faulk similarly saying ‘enough is enough.’ And if that makes me a bad person, I guess I have to live with it tonight.
I think what bothered me most was that I was jealous of the New Jersey Devils who were projected to be in and are barely clawing to stay above the ‘playing for next year’ category. On Thursday night, the Devils’ style of play very much reminded me of the New Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets teams just before they seemed to put things together. The Devils played fast, aggressive and on the puck and just seemed to have a much higher intensity level and want for the puck. This style of play manifested itself in a smothering forecheck and stretches where it felt like the Canes were playing 2v3 in every single portion of the rink. That is how I so much want the Hurricanes too luck. It is 1 thing to be undermanned. That can be respectable and even admirable if you are outworking teams. The Canes have accomplished this some nights this season but were nowhere close on Thursday.
Without recapping the individual plays, the Canes struggles included:
- Sub-par goaltending.
- A special teams loss.
- Being hemmed in the defensive zone by a strong forecheck.
- Lack of big plays by big players.
A few player notes:
He looked no better than Ward unfortunately. The defense did not do him any favors, but he can be faulted for being slow to figure out what was happening on the wraparound goal, was beaten from an odd angle on a nice passing play and at least had a chance (even if a tough 1) on 2 other goals. In the end, the other goalie was better.
Ironically, I think it is actually time to give Lack a short run of games. At some point, Ron Francis needs to figure out if he can shake off rust or whatever is ailing him and find a groove with more ice time. Francis committed to him for 2 more years after this 1, and it is not at a backup pay rate. He needs to figure out of if there is at least a 1A/1B goalie in there somewhere.
He was 1 of incredibly few positives on Thursday night and has generally been 1 for the 2015-16 season. He has a smaller role as a fourth-liner, physical presence and new age enforcer, but he continues to perform admirably in it. He scored what was a fairly big goal at the time pulling the Canes to within 3-1 before things got away again. He tried to spark his team with a fight. He had 4 hits in only 8 minutes of ice time. His 24-point pace over 82 games is very respectable when considering his limited ice time, no power play time and role. He is actually scoring at a higher per game clip than Lindholm and Skinner and is only slightly behind JStaal.
More directly, Brad Malone is doing his job and doing it well.
I have not been optimistic about his long-term role in the NHL, but in consecutive games he has made plays that led directly to Canes goals. On Monday against the Rangers, he scored on a breakaway off the bench. On Thursday, he helped win the puck battle for the puck that ultimately led to Malone’s goal.
Growing pains for the young D
The young blue line struggled in Thursday’s loss.
Brett Pesce had arguably his worst game in a Hurricanes uniform. He is now a scouted player and will need to adjust a little bit. Early in his NHL run, teams tried to ‘pressure the rookie’ by aggressively sending forecheckers to him to see he would make bad decisions and cough up the puck. It actually played right to Pesce’s strength of being able to quickly and efficiently handle pucks and make quick, short first passes. These passes had the first forechecker on him when the puck was already gone. Teams are gradually starting to shift the pressure to taking away his short outlets which has him sending pucks to forwards about the same time the defender is arriving. The result is more turnovers and/or fewer times when Pesce pass recipients are receiving the puck with enough time to do something with it. He was also 1 of the 2 players split (McClement was the other) on the Henrique power play rush and goal and just generally struggled to move the puck and defend on the way to being a minus 3.
Noah Hanifin was also turned outside for a straight path to the net but was saved by Eddie Lack. He was also the 1 defender who might have been able to save a tough situation on the 4-on-2 for the Devils first goal. The bad situation was not his fault, but when he just backed up and backed up, he allowed the first passing lane and then when he played to take away an odd angle low-percentage shot (which was exactly what you wanted to give up in that situation), he allowed the puck to go right back through the same hole to the eventual goal scorer.
The bigger thing for me is a continued regression in his style of play. By the middle of the game, I started counting when the puck was on and off his stick. There are obviously times when a quick pass up is a great thing. And there is always some risk in playing with the puck on your stick. But in watching Hanifin, I think he has regressed to the point where he seems to want nothing to do with the puck and just tries to get rid of it the first chance he gets. The results Thursday were some okay passes forward, but also a consistent tendency to chuck pucks in the general direction of Ryan Murphy when under pressure regularly putting Murphy in a tough spot.
Ryan Murphy. He was not great either and in a game where the Canes desperately needed help moving the puck out of their own end, Murphy did not really have much for answers either. He was half of a young D pairing that got hemmed in throughout the first half of the game before the Devils backed off a little to play safer with a big lead.
I think the key thing with this negative is mostly to accept and live with it. A rough game does not take away what has generally been forward progress by these players and it is an inevitable part of growing young defensemen.
So after a great run of 2-way hockey by a Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom line and scoring to boot, Peters decided to break up the trio I guess to try to jump start other players. By the midway point of the game, the 3 were back together. In a game that had much to be irritated about as a Canes fan, I actually clung to this 1. In a season where very little is working, I stubbornly refuse to see sound logic in breaking something up if it is currently working.
Focus on the broken stuff. There is enough to do there. Keep the stuff that is working.
We ROCK at face-offs
I said on Twitter shortly after the game, the I rarely found practices interesting after preseason (when there are new players to watch and roster battles are being sorted out), but that tomorrow could be interesting. After a frustrating loss in a game with lackluster effort, I would expect a surly crew tomorrow.
The other challenge is that the team plays 2 more home games in short order against good teams. Montreal is dinged up but still playing well, and Arizona is another team that is young and supposed to be rebuilding but decided to start winning early.
To go with a chance for a team and fan base minus holiday cheer if Thursday continues, there is also the potential for drama.