In the season opener in Winnipeg on Thursday night the Carolina Hurricane shook off an early soft goal against and played a phenomenal game………………..until they utterly collapsed turning a 4-1 third period lead into an overtime loss. Had you told me before the game that the Canes would lose in overtime, I would have taken it as a positive start, but after having a win in hand at 4-1, the consolation point only slightly reduces the sting.
The game was sluggish early with not much for scoring chances either way, but Winnipeg climbed onto the scoreboard first without actually requiring a scoring chance to do it. With the puck toward the corner and behind the end line, Ward lacked attention to detail, did not get to the post and had the puck shot off him for a 1-0 Jets lead. The goal seemed to temporarily deflate the Hurricanes. Soon thereafter the Canes took a pair of penalties less than 10 seconds apart that seemed to spell impending doom. But for the first game of the year, the hockey gods were incredibly generous only awarding Winnipeg 2 posts on 5-on-3 shots that beat Ward. The Canes took a sigh of relief and built a hockey game from there. First, Lee Stempniak found a wide open Jeff Skinner in front of the net who finished his own rebound to draw the Hurricanes even at 1-1 to finish the first period.
The Hurricanes were dominant in the second period. Then Lee Stempniak scored himself when he and Bryan Bickell did the dirty work on the power play going to the crease. Bickell screened the goalie and the puck bounced around and off Stempniak’s skate and in following a strong point shot from Noah Hanifin. The Canes built the lead to 3-1 when Viktor Stalberg got in Dustin Byfuglien’s kitchen while Jordan Staal did work between the circles to pot a goal. The Hurricanes scored late on a power play early in the third period seemingly on their way to a win.
Then repeating a problem during preseason, the Hurricanes completely imploded. When the dust cleared the Canes had blown a 3-goal lead to limp into overtime with a variety of bad miscues and nothing for an answer from Ward who had 2 pretty easy periods and then a rough last 25ish minutes. First Jeff Skinner made a soft back pass at his own blue line on the power play and the puck was quickly behind Ward for 4-2. Then Patrick Laine flat beat a small Cam Ward who was ducking under a screen for 4-3. And the collapse finished with Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk both being roughly in the right place to defend the front of the net but having no idea who/what to defend as Winnipeg completed a pass through the middle of the ice for a tap in goal.
The Hurricanes struggles carried forward into overtime. I counted at least 4 turnovers in a disjointed effort to win, move and keep the puck. It ended with a 2-on-1 that saw Noah Hanifin unable to take away the pass and a quick finish for a hard to swallow 5-4 loss.
The disastrous collapse will outweigh all other memories and analysis for this game, but there was actually more good than bad if you sort through the details and wreckage.
‘What I’m watching’ follow up
The watch points in my game preview were heavy on seeking a couple stable foundations to build on early in the season.
1) Jordan Staal’s line
The trio of Andrej Nestrasil, Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom offered a mixed bag in the season opener. Their style of play that won pucks in their own end, played in fast straight lines through the neutral zone and often finished shifts in the offensive zone was mostly intact. And Jordan Staal notched a goal which is obviously a positive. But they were as guilty as anyone in terms of lack of attention to detail at times. Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom both contributed to the parade to the penalty box with minor penalties. In the game-tying goal sequence at the end, Nordstrom was the player with the puck on his stick and unable to get the puck out of his own end right when the Jets were pulling the goalie. And Jordan Staal was 1 of a couple players who were mostly deer in the headlights on the last goal.
I found enough in Thursday’s game to be optimistic that Nestrasil/Staal/Nordstrom can regain their form from last season but also enough imperfections to say that Thursday was not quite up to snuff.
2) Cam Ward
He had a rough night. The first goal against was atrocious and deflating. It might only have been the couple posts on the 5-on-3 against that kept that goal from digging a huge hole. The Hurricanes were not very good in the third period after building the lead, but an NHL goalie needs to hold the fort better with a 4-1 lead. 5 goals against on a relatively light night in terms of both volume and quality of chances overall obviously is not going to get it done in the NHL. Had the Jets not clanged 2 past Ward and off the pipe on the 5-on-3, it could have been worse. I would expect to see Eddie Lack on Sunday.
3) The top 4 on defense
The scoring outburst was wonderful, but I actually think the play of the blue line in total was the positive story of the game from a Hurricanes standpoint. The Jets are a little bit light on pure high-end scoring talent but even still the Hurricanes defense was pretty solid all night. One could count any of bad turnovers, defensive zone coverage breakdowns or other big mistakes by the blue line with only a couple fingers. I thought Slavin/Faulk were especially sound all night. Hainsey/Pesce were also pretty sound as were Hanifin/Dahlbeck. When you look at the goals against, the first was just a bad one by Ward, the second was a horrible turnover by Skinner on the power play, the third was a fairly harmless shot that was well-placed and through a screen. Of the 4 regulation goals, I think you can really only hold the defense partly accountable on the last goal when pretty much everyone was scrambling around.
I would gladly take a bunch of these games from the blue line.
—Skinner/Rask/Stempniak: Skinner had the horrible turnover for the important second goal against, and Stempniak had a similarly horrible turnover at the defensive blue line but was rescued when he was hooked trying to recover. But in terms of being a going concern offensively, Thursday night’s effort was everything one could as for and more. The trio accounted for 3 of the team’s 4 goals (2 on the power play). Stempniak’s level of engagement was especially solid. He consistently makes little plays in all 3 zones that better any situation.
—Bickell/McClement/Stalberg: Especially since I have voted regularly to go a different direction with the fourth line, it is important that I give credit where it is due. The fourth line had an incredibly good night. McClement and Stalberg were a regular part of a penalty kill that was busy and had a good night. Stalberg drew a minor penalty pressuring for a loose puck in the offensive zone. Stalberg was also the player who got tangled up with Byfuglien such that Jordan Staal was left free to bury a goal. Bickell was the screen on Hanifin’s shot that pin-balled in off of Stempniak. McClement had a solid night. All in all, I think the fourth line had an incredible night and earned the right to stay in the lineup for Sunday’s game in Vancouver despite the fact that the team lost.
—Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen: In a big boys game against a big, physical, blue collar Winnipeg Jets team, this skill line was really really quiet 5-on-5. The few times they had the puck on theirs sticks on the rush, they were pushed to the outside. In his debut, Sebastian Aho’s showed some skill and smarts with the puck on his stick on the power play but was not able to do the same with less time and space at even strength. Teravainen was even quieter. It is only 1 game, but I would not rate it as a positive for this group.
—Overtime: Perhaps it was because they were shell shocked after the regulation ending, but the Hurricanes were horrible in overtime. I counted at least 4 times that they had the puck and turned it over which is everything in the puck possession overtime format. The key is being able to keep the puck which the Canes could not. It all ended when Hanifin was put in a bad situation defending a 2-on-1 rush but failed defenseman 101 which is to just take away the pass and leave the shot for the goalie.
—The penalty kill: Some people might not remember this, but the Hurricanes penalty kill actually started slow in 2015-16 before building momentum over the course of the season. Thursday’s effort did benefit from 2 shots off the iron on the 5-on-3, but overall I thought the penalty kill looked solid especially in 2 clean and efficient kills in the second period.
Despite the miserable path to get there, winning a point in a road game is not a complete disaster.
Next up is a late 10pm Eastern Time start in Vancouver on Sunday.