As I said on Twitter immediately following the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, there really was not a lot that I would keep from Saturday’s win.
The Hurricanes dictated play and won the possession battle which kept the Sabres shot total in check, but that top line number was not indicative of the quality of the Canes play defensively or the chances they gave up. The difference was Scott Darling who was outstanding. The game was arguably the worst possible variety for him in terms of how the game played out. After a tough outing on Thursday that might have seen him enter the game fighting it a bit, he had nothing (literally zero shots on him for three-fourths of the first period). That mostly continued interspersed with occasional defensive lapses that led to grade A scoring chances. So the challenging pattern that Darling faced all night was nothing, nothing, nothing….BANG! stand on your head and make a huge save! And he did.
In saying that there was not much I would keep from this game, Darling’s play obviously stands out. The other thing was the Hurricanes compete level and hunger. While the quality was not so much there, the 60-minute compete was. Maybe most noticeable was the penalty kill. That similarly was nothing to keep in terms of formula, but the level of blocked shots and desperation playing too much right around the crease stood out as ‘finding a way’ kind of hockey.
Following the ‘results matter’ theme that I have repeated this season, Saturday was a huge success. Further, the ball (or puck if you will) is now on the tee for a Sunday win to close out another hugely successful week at 3-1 following a similarly strong 2-0-1 last week.
Notes from the Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Sabres
1) Scott Darling
I am not sure I can really say enough about his play on Saturday. People who missed the game just take a quick look at a box score will see a very respectable one goal against but versus a weak team offensively right now and on a low shot total. This game could easily have been the kind where he allowed 3-4 goals and lost and looked bad in the process because he gave up so much on so few shots. But he had the answer time and again on Saturday night.
2) The fourth line
With Marcus Kruger back in the lineup and Phil Di Giuseppe in Josh Jooris slot (out with ‘soreness’), the fourth line was back to their usual role on the road taking as many of tough match ups steered around Staal’s line as possible. They played nearly perfect hockey in terms of just being safe and sound, and it was on a night when other parts of the team were not. Phil Di Giuseppe represents NHL-ready depth. It is unclear that he will ever find the higher gear that I hoped for him, but he is experienced and know the job description for stepping in and providing solid fourth line minutes. He had a couple decent shots on goal and also a really pretty pass to Kruger right in front who had a bit of a “I don’t do scoring” approach to handling it. I am not sure that Di Giuseppe will prove to be enough of an upgrade to seize a permanent place in the lineup (a scoring burst and/or penalty kill ice time would help), but at a minimum, he represents great depth to have available.
3) The breakdowns
The flip side of the Darling positives is the volume of defensive breakdowns. Those who track based on goals might think Saturday was different, but I actually think this game was pretty similar to Thursday in terms of volume and severity of defensive breakdowns.
Jaccob Slavin had Jack Eichel and Jordan Nolan (he recovered somewhat on that one to impede Nolan as he was shooting)blow by him and forge a path straight to the net.
Haydn Fleury made a bad decision to push forward when Justin Faulk already had, and the result was a breakaway the other direction. He later turned the puck over in his own end and then failed to sort things out such that Eichel got behind him and in front of Faulk for a point blank chance.
Justin Faulk had Johan Larsson walk behind him off the board with a path to the net.
A group effort saw Evander Kane unguarded in front of the net for two point blank chances that are really tough for the goalie when the puck goes from behind him to in front of him for quick shot. Eichel had a similar chance also in the third period but mostly whiffed.
The penalty kill survived with the key word being survived. They really did very little to limit puck movement or shot attempts and also saw the puck bouncing around in front of the net for “hack and whack time” (ref. Forslund) multiple times. The defense survived the penalty kill more from a few stellar Darling saves, (to their credit) some timely blocked shots and a decent helping of luck.
And those are just the ones I remembered or had time to jot in my notes.
In summary, the 3-1 result hides the fact that the Hurricanes soundness rating defensively was low for the second consecutive game.
4) Special teams
The power play again had a chance to make a difference and as has been the case regularly in 2017-18, it failed. After a strong start, more than a full minute of 5-on-3 power play time represented a chance to cash in and start to build the early lead that the team deserved. Instead, it went by the wayside, and a strong Buffalo power play late in the first period seemed to help them climb into the game a bit after doing nothing for most of the first period. Important to note is that the power play did come into the game with a two-game scoring streak, but it was 0 for 4 on Saturday in a game when a goal or two especially early could have sent the Canes off to the races for an easier win.
The penalty kill was a perfect 2 for 2. The biggest positives were the high level of compete/desperation and the shot blocking. My quick count had Pesce, Fleury, Slavin and also a forward or two with big shot blocks on what would have been good scoring chances. But the formula of being hemmed in a tiny box on the penalty kill and allowing the other team to shoot at will and then battling to clear a high number of pucks in the crease area is not a formula that will work over the long haul.
5) Clutch scoring
Justin Williams goal was obviously huge. The farther that game goes with the Hurricanes winning the territorial battle but not winning the scoreboard, the more likely it is to end badly.
Suddenly hot goal scorer Sebastian Aho also notched his third in three games for the late game-winner.
6) The kind of game the team needs to win
As I said in my game preview, this was the kind of game that the Hurricanes needed to seize. They were coming off a tough game Thursday and also needed the win to preserve the recent gains. Further, they caught one of those days when the schedule was favorable against a struggling team that played and traveled the night before. Though it was not pretty, this game was a huge game and dare I say the kind that too often they have wasted in the recent past.
Up next is a quick turnaround and a chance for revenge against the New York Islanders at PNC Arena on Sunday at 5pm. The game is a “pivotal” (ref. Tracy) one for the week. With a win, the team will be 3-1 on the week which would make two consecutive weeks at two wins above .500. With a loss, the week instead becomes ‘meh’ especially with two losses to the Islanders who also figure to be a team i the mix for one of the last couple playoff spots that the Canes are eyeing.