Sorry for the extended yammering. After MONTHS with no hockey, I have a lot to say. 🙂 Feel free to stop reading at the point when you’ve had enough.
Leaving behind what I have called a ‘fan generation’ (maybe I’ll write what I mean by that on a slow day in the future) of losing behind requires change. At a simple level, the change is math like winning more games, collecting more points in the standings and finishing somewhere in the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference to make a return to the playoffs. But in sports where culture is important and expectations and habits can create repeating results regardless of changes in personnel or talent level, the biggest change that shifts a losing team to the winning column is a change in attitude and expectations. In terms of the simple math, Saturday’s season-opening win netted two points which is at least one more point than any other season since 2012-13. But more significantly, Saturday has the potential to become a small building block for making the bigger change in attitude and expectations. For the first time in a long while, the Hurricanes will not exit their first game and enter the practice that follows saying ‘it’s only one game; let’s win the next one’ or similar cliches uttered by losing teams early in the season that very often continue down the same path and become losing teams at the end of the season.
I will leave the detailed recap to the many other outlets that post AP style recaps with who scored when and also a couple quotes. I always recommend the version on the team website that also has links handy to all of the statistics too.
Before jumping straight to notes, I would summarize Saturday’s 5-4 shootout win by saying that the game was strong in terms of puck possession and winning the shot and scoring chance battle but was an intermittent train wreck in terms of attention to detail and the big ‘oopses’ that have plagued the team in the past especially early in the season. Sebastian Aho took over the game and could have collected more than the two assists that he did (see bel0w). Jaccob Slavin was his usual solid self defensively before chipping in a shootout game-winner to boot. The volume of mistakes on the back end looked much more like a potentially good young blue line still fighting through growing pains on the path to realizing its potential.
Player and other notes
I noted four players for whom I was looking for a continuation from 2016-17, so let me start with them in the order from the preview.
He had a huge goal. He had another really good chance where he smartly stepped into an opening to receive a pass and a good soring chance. And he was generally strong and mostly error free with the puck on his stick exiting the defensive zone and traversing the neutral zone with the puck. But to go with that positive, he was an utter train wreck defensively in the neutral zone and in his own end in terms of sorting out angles, positioning and assignments. The first Minnesota Wild goal came on a power play when Hanifin was in the penalty box after having a Wild player easily blow right around him to the net and earn a Hanifin obstruction-type penalty in the process. The second goal saw Hanifin get too far up in the neutral zone and simultaneously loose track of the angle on the player and passing lane he needed to defend on the rush. The result was an uncontested breakaway that found the net behind Scott Darling. And the third Wild goal came when both Hanifin and Trevor van Riemsdyk had trouble getting the puck through the neutral zone and both pushed too far forward and found themselves on the wrong side of the puck in transition. The result was another breakaway and a goal against. He had a couple other near misses
The half full for Saturday is that he played well in two areas of the game. The downside is that he was an utter mess defensively which is table stakes for being solid top 4 defenseman in the NHL.
I might write more about this in the coming days, but there are two angles on this. First is to recognize that perhaps Saturday will prove to be an anomaly and not a reason for concern. Second, if the trend continues, is to choose the harder path forward. Even after a tough night defensively like Saturday, I continue to think that the path forward for Hanifin that comes closest to reaching his ceiling MUST include a style of play that is aggressive. That being the case, going into a shell and reverting to passive and conservative might make for a better next game, but it will not get Hanifin to where he needs ultimately to be as a player. It might be time to swallow hard and embrace the growing pains that could be a difficult necessity. Regardless, after Hanifin’s night and day game offensively versus defensively on Saturday, one can bet that he will make my ‘what I’m watching’ for Tuesday.
Most notable in Elias Lindholm’s game was his secondary but significant role in Sebastian Aho’s huge night. Lindholm showed heady chemistry with Aho. Multiple times they supported each other with the puck providing short passing outlets or driving defensemen back to make some space before Aho eventually used the situation for his wizardry. I would not say that Lindholm stood out tremendously in terms of the engagement level that I look for from him, but by no means did he have an invisible night in that regard.
When the Hurricanes’ defense seemed to be coming unglued in the first period, Justin Faulk was mostly quiet in a good way. He did pick up a tripping penalty in the first period but otherwise seemed to at least stay out of trouble alongside Jaccob Slavin. His jump through the neutral zone playing offense with or without the puck continues to be a strength. He had multiple times on Saturday where he stepped into good places to shoot but had a few passes that were just a bit off and did not yield a shot. When Coach Bill Peters quickly regrouped after the tough period for the defense and reunited Slavin and Pesce for the second period, Faulk seemed to be okay next to Hanifin too. All in all, I would call Saturday a net positive for Faulk which is significant given that he has historically been a slow starter.
I am mostly inclined to give him an N/A due to the tough night. First, somewhat like both of his preseason starts, he had almost nothing to do early to get into the game and build a rhythm. Then when the shots came, a few were some combination of ‘no chance’ or ‘really really tough’ (the uncontested breakaways). So his four goals against on a modest shot total are nothing to write home about, but I would not say that they are so much indicative of his level of play. I would not consider three shots enough to make some kind of final evaluation of his shootout play, but 3-for-3 was encouraging and even more so when considering how he did it. First, being big is a huge advantage for the shootout. There is simply less net to shoot at, but maybe more significant is the fact that when he goes down to take away lower portions of the net along the ice, the targets to shoot at in the upper corners are still fairly small. Finally, he demonstrated the patience to just wait out the shooter especially in the case of Koivu whose move was from the ‘make a dozen quick moves to see if you can get the goalie to play first’ variety. Darling patiently just waited Koivu out until all he could do was shoot the puck into him from too close to have much chance to beat him. In total, I am chalking Saturday up as a positive for Darling with a win and a perfect shootout performance and am hoping he fares better when the team gives him a more manageable game.
Other player notes
I already singled out Noah Hanifin for a rough first period. While Hanifin might have struggled the most, his partner Brett Pesce had an uncharacteristically rough start as well. The ominously foreboding start featured the play where Hanifin carried the puck around the net only to run into Pesce and get the puck tangled up with the his stick that he was in the process of retrieving. The Hanifin/Pesce duo in the first period had a run of four or five shifts that alternated between two versions of bad. The first featured Pesce having the puck on his stick on the wall in the corner but unable to move it from his own end such that they were hemmed in and had to win the puck multiple times to ultimately clear it to center ice. The second version featured Hanifin’s run of defensive breakdowns in the neutral and defensive zones. Peters saw enough of the combination after 20 minutes and reunited Slavin/Pesce to start the second period though everything later went random when Trevor van Riemsdyk was felled by injury making for a defense corps of five. Pesce was also beaten off the wall to the backdoor for an easy Wild tap in on the power play on Hanfin’s penalty.
He collected two assists and earned the first star for his efforts, but he could have had much more. The positive of playing with Staal and Lindholm is that he brings a bit more offense to that checking-first line while still being capable defensively too. The downside is that with neither Staal or Lindholm being pure finishers, Aho’s playmaking/passing ability will be underutilized to the tune of 12-18 assists playing with them. The wild card in the equation is if Lindholm still has another gear left offensively as he is still a young player. Aho fed Staal for two point blank chances in the first part of the game and Lindholm for two pretty good chances off the rush later with none of those passes finding the back of the net. I guess the positive are twofold. If the Hurricanes win and make the playoffs, who cares about point totals. And the other silver lining is that Aho’s next contract likely to be signed next summer could be significantly different if his point total is tamped down to a 55-60 point range instead of pushing up to the 70s neighborhood.
But back to Saturday, I already noted that I thought Aho and Lindholm’s chemistry moving the puck was tremendous. And I think Noah Hanifin’s goal is the epitome of Aho’s cerebral hockey play. He had the puck on his stick in the neutral zone in a crowded situation, with Minnesota defenders back in position roughly where they would have liked to be and with a 3-on-3-ish situation that looked pretty harmless. From starting with the puck on his stick on the left side of the neutral zone, he correctly figured out that there was a bit more room to the right, so he cut across, forced the defense to start adjusting and gained the blue line on-sides with time and space that did not seem to be there on the other side. But still looking at 3-on-3 and crowded without much to do, he made a short pass to Lindholm who was able to join the play when Aho played across the front of the blue line. But Lindholm really did not have much for room either and seemed destined to chuck the puck to the end boards and then go try to win it. But Aho trailed Lindholm supporting the puck and giving him a short and safe pass to use. Then when Aho received the puck, he used the space behind Lindholm created when Lindholm drove the defense back. Suddenly, Aho had the puck again with time, space and speed on the right side of the ice. And based on how we got here, it was not just random luck that he quickly found Noah Hanifin jumping into the play and put the puck in his wheelhouse for a shot and a goal. I will bet my opening night Canes hat, that Aho knew Hanifin was coming into that lane from taking a quick look during the brief time that he did not have puck.
Shorter version: One needs to unravel the sequence of small and seemingly simple plays that add up to the big one to see it, but Aho’s cerebral playmaking continues to be off the charts.
The fourth line
I am historically not as high on Brock McGinn as some others, and I am on record as preferring to start Josh Jooris in McGinn’s slot for opening day. McGinn had a tremendous game. He had a couple decent hits and was right in the middle of the fray for the huge Joakim Nordstrom goal that kept the Canes in it early. And McGinn also had multiple plays where he used some combination of will, effort and smarts to make small plays to push pucks forward either out of the defensive zone to relieve trouble or through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone to get a line change. Nordstrom and Kruger also had strong games, and anytime you get a meaningful goal from the fourth line it is a bonus.
At the early point when the blue line was an intermittent dumpster fire, Slavin was a steady presence mostly just clicking off shifts without incident. I am not a fan of the shootout, but at the end of the day, the skills competition matters immensely in the standings, so Slavin’s patented forward-backhand-top shelf finish was the clincher for an extra point in the standings. His highlight was easily on the Rask goal. Well before Aho’s wizardry, Slavin won a puck in the defensive zone and then exhibited sheer strength and skating ability to do a tight turn and accelerate away with Eric Staal draped on him such that he was able to make a quick pass to the neutral zone to get the rush going. On a night that was a mixed bag defensively, calling Jaccob Slavin simply ‘steady’ is a huge compliment.
I liked his game in general despite the fact that he did not light up the score sheet. Interesting will be finding where he fits as a player who has a playmaking center ‘play with the puck on his stick’ style of play that might not be a great complement for Skinner and Ryan. He started with that duo, but before the first period was over he had been swapped with Justin Williams.
He was not perfect, but I liked his debut overall. What jumps out about Fleury is that just like the rest of the young blue line, he is physically capable at an NHL level and not a stretch. He is big enough, strong enough and a good enough skater to compete at this level and should only get better.
What say you Caniacs?
How much fun was it watching Hurricanes hockey again?
What did you see in Saturday’s win?