Coming out of a strong effort against the New York Rangers, I was optimistic that that game could serve as a foundation for a next step up for the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes. For that to happen would require the Hurricanes to do two things. First would be to double down on the intensity, effort and determination from Tuesday. Second would be to clean up the growing number of defensive messes.
On Saturday night in Ottawa a capitulation period for the defensive issued snowed the team under by the end of the first period maybe so early that it was impossible to get a read on much else in this game.
With a three-game losing streak coming into the game and the need for some urgency, Jordan Staal took a slashing penalty nine seconds into the game. In retrospect, that seemed to forewarn of what was to come. Also open to interpretation was Ryan Dzingel fighting early in the first period. In 2018-19, I thought that Jordan Martinook, Micheal Ferland and Justin Williams had an incredibly good feel for the pulse of the team. Martinook had a knack for dialing up big hits early in games when the team needed it. Ferland did the same and also dropped the gloves a few times. And Williams had a surly attitude when the team’s play dictated surly early in the season. Sometimes teams needs someone to make some kind of statement that things NOT OKAY. The fact that the biggest thing I could point to to suggest someone had the pulse was a Dzingel fight maybe says a lot.
My count was four odd man rushes surrendered in the first 15ish minutes of the game. The result was two goals against, a phenomenal James Reimer save to stop another goal and a penalty taken to stop another grade A chance. When the dust settled on the first period, the Hurricanes were down 3-0 and the recent troubles defensively had quickly escalated from smoldering to an irrecoverable dumpster fire. No one was unscathed. Joel Edmundson got caught flat-footed at the defensive blue line to let two behind him for one of the odd man rushes and Ottawa’s first goal. Jake Gardiner was caught up ice on the penalty that Warren Foegele took. Dougie Hamilton made an ill-advised attempt to collect a puck off a center ice face-off. When he missed it was a breakaway and a third Ottawa goal. Hamilton had another where he let a player behind him for a 2-on-1 rush. It is so hard to evaluate much else in a game like this where so much went so horribly wrong so quickly on defense.
The Hurricanes were the better team in the second period, but much of that was likely the result of Ottawa adjusting their style of play with a three-goal lead. The greatest sign of hope cam when Andrei Svechnikov scored on the power play to get the Canes to within 3-1 at the midway point of the second period. The Hurricanes pushed for a bit after that goal, had the upper hand and had some chances to net another goal to pull within a goal. But it was not to be. The hockey gods frowned down based on not showing up for the first period and the Hurricanes exited the second period down 3-1.
The Hurricanes pushed a bit and had the edge in shots in the third period but the quality of chances was ‘meh’ at best. A few more somewhat excusable break downs resulted from the Canes gambling for goals late. One of those sealed the deal at 4-1 appropriately with another breakaway tally.
Whereas I actually thought Tuesday’s loss had a chance to be a stake in the ground and foundation for improvement, Saturday’s loss was undeniably a step backward. The team failed to show up for the first period and was just lackluster in general.
Player and other notes
1) Jordan Staal and the change in leadership
With Justin Williams gone and Jordan Martinook still out with injury, we are seeing the first serious test of the Hurricanes with Jordan Staal as the team’s leader. His slashing penalty nine seconds into the game was inauspicious to say the least. More significantly, I just question whether he is cut out for this role. Before Williams, the Hurricanes for the last decade (with Staal wearing a letter for most of it) just seemed unable to muster a response in situations like this. Staal is definitely under the microscope right now as this team tries to find itself.
2) James Reimer
While I do not think you can pin this game on Reimer, he had very little for answers when the team needed him to buy some time while they woke up for the game. He fought the puck throughout the first period and spit out rebounds left and right including on one of the first period goals. Again, he was a victim as much as a culprit, but at the same time I think it is fair to say that his runs his streak of being ‘meh’ or worse to four straight games.
3) The growing mess on defense
I think the defensive troubles right now are enough that Brind’Amour and his staff have it upon them to make some changes. The challenge is figuring out what. As I said on Twitter, the team has at most three (Slavin, Pesce and maybe van Riemsdyk) three defensemen who are doing the defense thing competently right now. Hiding behind his prolific scoring, Hamilton has been a train wreck of late. Gardiner has also struggled with decision-making in the neutral zone. And Edmundson seems to be struggling with the Hurricanes style that encourages defensemen to step up when maybe he is just better-suited for a conservative stay-home style. My recommendation, again per Twitter after the game, would be to go really top-heavy on steady. Right now, I think the issues are becoming contagious, and with the current balanced approach the team basically has holes across all three pairings. Slavin has had many more than his fair share if ‘iffy’ defensive plays trying to cover for Hamilton’s roving ways. I would build a short-term top 4 from Slavin, Pesce, van Riemsdyk and probably Fleury. I think that group offers the best chance to offer some steady and calm to stop the bleeding and reestablish a foundation.
4) Best need to be better
Early in the season, key players were struggling to produce. But some combination of overtime and shootout magic, timely depth scoring and a strong second power play unit made it possible for the Canes to win anyway. But as I said at the time, the team would need players like Aho to find a higher gear to win over the long haul. I think we have officially reached the long haul. Aho was on the ice for all four goals against on Saturday and was not a factor in a game when the other team’s best players were. He has had some fits and starts of late but has yet to really be a regular difference-maker now 17 games into the season. Staal had the odd penalty to start the game and has also been ‘meh’ of late. He is uncharacteristically piling up obstruction type penalties and has yet to score in November. The path upward will need to include the team’s best players being exactly that.
Next up for the Hurricanes is a rematch against the Senators in Raleigh on Monday night.