Coming off a psyche-challenging 1-3-2 road trip and playing a Rangers team that was off to a strong start at 5-2, and the situation looked potentially ominous for the home opener. Also recognizing that the Hurricanes had not won a home opener since 2008 only added to any doubts that Canes fans might have had making their way into a full PNC Arena.
I LOVED the parking chaos actually
Partly because I was there early enough to still be in my seat before the opening ceremony started, I oddly think one of my favorite parts was being led into the parking lot near Carter-Finley Stadium only to then learn it was full and have to meander all the way over to the other side of the football practice facility. I have not parked there since the 2009 playoffs and also remember doing the same for the 2006 playoffs.
But back to the hockey which was obviously the more interesting story of the night.
The Hurricanes were a bit slow and sluggish out of the gate, but mostly managed to survive having the ice tilted into their end for about 10 minutes. Cam Ward made a couple good saves early and despite being challenged moving the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone with possession. But then 8:31 into the first period the Rangers were finally rewarded with a goal for being the better team. The goal had the markings of a deflating goal against. Not hugging the post, Ward had another shot from either at or behind the end line get behind him. Somehow that shot did not go in the net, but then the Rangers scored a controversial goal anyway as Ward lay prone on the ice with a pile up of a Ranger and a Canes defenseman also in the crease. I would have voted for incidental contact, no goal, no penalty and a face-off, but the referees ruled it a good goal. At that point, the Hurricanes had not completely cracked in terms of mistakes and defensive zone coverage, but they were definitely off to a slow start.
Enter the hero of the night. Jeff Skinner then single-handedly jump started the team with a patented Jeff Skinner whirling dervish variety goal. He entered the offensive zone 1 against 4 with really nothing going on, but he pressed forward and attacked with speed anyway. The result was a quick rush and a relatively harmless shot that missed the net. Then in the span of the next 4-5 seconds, Skinner lifted the team up. He retrieved his own shot behind the net, carried the puck back out front and made a big “I got this fellas” statement when he rifled a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game at 1. Sometimes goals come as a result of a burst of energy; other times the goals are the catalyst for finding energy. Friday night was very clearly the latter, as Jeff Skinner’s goal seemed to jolt the Hurricanes to life. Skinner’s goal seemed to tilt the ice back to flat and inject a caffeine-laden energy drink into the Hurricanes’ bench.
By no means were the Canes suddenly dominant after the Skinner goal, but the ice tilted back to flat and the Hurricanes pushed back throughout the rest of the game. To start the second period, Brett Pesce made a nice pass to partially spring Skinner on a 1-on-1 rush. Skinner simultaneously used strength to put Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein on his hip and drag him along and the hands to lift a pretty backhand finish past Lundqvist. Then to top off a great night early, Jeff Skinner finished on the power play with less than a second left in the second period to put the Canes up 3-2 entering the third.
Nevermind, that the goal was later credited to Bryan Bickell, there is maybe nothing better visually at a hockey game than a home hat trick on a hat giveaway night. It’s SO much better when everyone in the building just received a free hat a couple hours earlier.
The scoring excitement was over by the end of the second period, after blowing 2 3-goal leads and also a 2-goal lead, that is a great story in and of itself. The Hurricanes played parts of the third period under duress, but there were 4 big positives mixed in. First, Ward was sharp and made a couple solid tester saves. Second, even when under pressure, the team did not collapse/implode like the other games in terms of coverage breakdowns and horrible turnovers. The Canes did a reasonably decent job of counter punching and also netting some shifts controlling the puck in the offensive zone to get some relief. And last but not least, they held on to win.
The game was not perfect, but it is easily has the greatest volume of things that the team will hope to build into a repeatable formula.
‘What I’m watching’ check points
If you missed it and care to read the details, the game preview is HERE.
1) Bill Peters ability to capitalize on last change on home ice
Behind the scenes of a fun night, there was definitely an element of Coach Bill Peters pulling levers behind the curtain to try to boost his team that came into the game ailing a bit. He pulled the Skinner/Rask/Stempniak line off the ice at a face-off after a short 28-second first shift seeking to try to get match ups rolling the way he wanted. Both of Skinner’s even strength goals came at the expense of the Klein/Staal defense pairing that has 2 veteran defensemen but is light on the ideal mobility to defend Skinner off the rush which played into both goals. With 2 days off before the game and a day off before the next game, Peters also shortened the bench significantly down the stretch. Someone holler if there is an injury report on Klas Dahlbeck, but my assumption is that his 17 seconds of third period ice time was because of his play, especially losing track of Mats Zuccarello who got behind him for a breakaway goal. Peters and defenseman coach Steve Smith went with a rotation of 5 defensemen in the third period, and Peters also leaned on Jordan Staal as much as he could down the stretch.
It is only 1 game, but Friday’s win offers some hope that there is some ability for Peters to coax more out of the home Hurricanes.
2) A sounder game
The game was not flawless. The first goal was partially a result of Ward having another shot from an impossible angle get behind him, and the second Rangers’ goal came on a 1-on-none breakaway when Zucarello sneaked behind Dahlbeck and Hanifin. But the count of ‘big oopses’ as I called them in a daily post recently was greatly reduced relative to the Hurricanes other games thus far.
3) The goaltending
Cam Ward was very good and deserved the second star that he was awarded at PNC Arena. He had the early goal against that brought back bad memories, but otherwise was beaten only on an uncontested breakaway. He saw 30 shots on net and a reasonably high number of testers with deflections and tough saves. On a night, when the Rangers could stake a fair claim to being the better team overall, Ward allowed only 2 goals. He also bettered Henrik Lundqvist. And he won.
I would expect Friday’s outing to earn him the start on Sunday against the Flyers and a chance to start to build from 1 to 2 in terms of strong goalie starts which would be a first on the young season.
4) Continued scoring ideally with Skinner
Questionable with a “middle body injury,” Jeff Skinner was in the lineup and was a 1-man offensive juggernaut. He made something out of nothing entering the offensive zone 1-on-4 for his first goal when the Hurricanes needed it, and then made a tremendous individual effort for the second goal. He finished with another well-timed individual effort with a blast at the buzzer to end the second period. Jeff Skinner’s game on Friday is the definition of leadership of the loud variety where a player picks up a team, puts it on his back and carries it to victory.
By virtue of not getting on the score sheet except for a minor penalty for delay of game, Justin Faulk’s game was a bit more understated than Skinner’s or Ward’s, but I had him in a dead heat with Cam Ward for the second star of the game. He was sharp and executed small play after small play the entire night leading the team with 24:25 of ice time. What stood out most to me was how incredibly good he was at engaging the puck or an opponent and winning in small spaces whether it was winning a race to the boards for a dump in and then keeping/moving it, defending 1-on-1, winning lose pucks or whatever else. I continue to believe that Justin Faulk must be 1 of the Hurricanes best 3-4 players for the team to be successful. In my opinion, he has not been through 6 games, but in game 7, he easily was. Just like with Ward, I will be watching anxiously on Sunday to see if Justin Faulk can use Friday’s strong effort to climb fully into the 2016-17 season and help lift his team upward.
A little more rugged
Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal led a pretty good overall effort to win ‘big boy hockey’ battling for pucks on the boards, tying up sticks and just doing more little things to make it difficult for an opponent even with possession and offensive zone time to always do something with it. Di Giuseppe would also get an honorable mention for playing a heavy game, and the team in general was better in this regard.
The Hurricanes now have 3 goals in 7 games that have a huge dose of Bickell in front of the net as part of them. For the first time on Friday, Bickell was actually credited with a goal on his deflection of Jeff Skinner’s shot. That is a significant offensive contribution from a player who was obtained really as a financial cost for obtaining another player (Teravainen) via trade.
On a night when Peters did all he could to preserve a 1-goal lead late and shortened the bench, he chose to keep Hanifin in the mix. With Dahlbeck out, Peters was going to need a few shifts from Hanifin, but he clearly played him more than the minimum. He also continued his scoring run with another assist.
Fewer but still some issues on the blue line
They were not horrible, but Slavin/Pesce took a small step backwards. They have players sneak between and past them on 2 occasions and had a few turnovers and coverage issues but importantly of the small and survivable variety. Pesce had a nice assist springing Skinner for his second goal, and I think the silver lining is that even the lesser version of their game is nothing close to the dumpster fire that young defenseman sometimes put up. The bigger negative was Klas Dahlbeck. I actually liked his quiet game in his first few games stepping into a brand new situation without the benefit of preseason/training camp, but I think he has regressed since then. He has taken a couple too many penalties and has had issues with sorting things out in the past couple games. Friday’s saw him looking forward and losing track of Zuccarello behind him.
All in all Friday was a tremendous night to be a Hurricanes fan. Next up is a rematch against the Philadelphia Flyers at home on Sunday.