As I said on Twitter immediately after the conclusion of the Hurricanes 3-2 loss the the New York Rangers, this one hurts. Sometimes on the road against good teams, it is possible to run into games where it just is not your night. That makes it even more important to capitalize when the door is left open. On Tuesday night, the door was left open. The Canes walked through it early. Then just as was the case far too often in October on the road, they failed to close it behind them.
Recap of Hurricanes 3-2 loss to the Rangers
One increasingly consistent positive is that the Hurricanes are making a habit of “starting games on time” to put it in Bill Peters’ vernacular. Just like with the 3 road games last week, the Hurricanes played well from the opening puck drop and were the better team while the game was heating up. And on Tuesday, the effort was rewarded richly when the fourth line (though maybe third line now) and Viktor Stalberg were rewarded with not 1 but 2 goals. First, only 5:22 into the game, the Hurricanes utilized their early jump in a shooting gallery shift by the Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg line with Hanifin/Tennyson. The mustered 3 wild shots with no effect but collected rebounds on all 3. The shots and the puck moving to and fro found the Rangers scrambling around a bit and Viktor Stalberg collecting the third rebound walking right in from the slot from where he beat former team mate Henrik Lundqvist to stake the Hurricanes to a 1-0 lead. Then about 7 minutes later, the McClement line against got out the work boots and battled for and won the puck in the offensive zone. A strong individual effort by Jay McClement carried the puck to the front of the net, and Viktor Stalberg again found a rebound on his stick and made no mistake burying for the second time. The Hurricanes carried the play and deservedly exited the first period in fine shape with a 2-0 lead.
The Hurricanes started the second period in the same fashion, but the Rangers hung around and eventually struck next to get back into the game when Nick Holden scored over Cam Ward who was planted on his stomach after lunging forward. At the midway point, it was suddenly a hockey game despite the fact that the Hurricanes had been the better team for half of the game. Through 2 periods, the Hurricanes had held the Rangers to a meager 12 shots on goal but exited the period with a slim 2-1 lead and the need to win or at least tie the third period to pick up a road win.
The lead evaporated almost instantly in the third period when Ron Hainsey mishandled a puck at the offensive blue line handing it to Rick Nash who was 1-on-1 the length of the rink with Justin Faulk back and in reasonable position to defend him. Seemingly being too cautious about having Nash cut back behind him or maybe just being out sorts defending more like a forward skating alongside Nash, Faulk played it passively letting Nash ultimately walk in and score on a perfectly place backhand as Cam Ward went down early. The Hurricanes staggered a bit after the game was tied at 2-2 but then recovered and played the third period fairly evenly both gaining and giving up chances. Then a controversial hooking penalty to Ron Hainsey compounded by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the Rangers 4 minutes of power play time with only 6:47 to play in the game. For the third time in the game, the dagger came with Cam Ward sprawled on the ice and Justin Faulk in front of the net but not doing all that much.
In a nutshell, I would say that the Hurricanes both made and received their own luck early to very early put this game into the category of winnable and then failed to follow up throughout the rest of the game.
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1, 1A and 1B: The Staal-less lineup including Elias Lindholm and the third and fourth lines needing to step up
Minus Jordan Staal, Bill Peters opted to keep as much of the lineup as possible intact and then fill in around that. Both the first line of Skinner/Rask/Lindholm and Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg stayed together making Teuvo Teravainen the wing who shifted into the center position.
Bill Peters’ lineup moves were reasonably effective. The decision to keep the fourth line together and elevate them to a bigger role paid off big. Two goals is obviously a good night for a third or fourth line or any line for that matter. The Hurricanes carried play through much of the game, so I think it is fair to say that Tuesday’s issues were not lineup related.
2) Leaders rising up
I think this was actually the story of the game lying beneath the surface of the individual plays. I called for a big effort from someone to help offset the loss of Jordan Staal. I specifically named veterans Jeff Skinner, Justin Faulk and Cam Ward. None of the Hurricanes named had very good games. Instead the star rising up was Rick Nash who was arguably the best player on the ice and whose third period goal tilted the game in the Rangers’ direction.
Jeff Skinner had a quiet night offensively and figured in the first Rangers’ goal when he was just a tad slow defending Nick Holden coming in from up top to score the Rangers first goal. It goes downhill from there. It is hard to fault Ward specifically for any of the 3 goals. All 3 featured shots from in close. But on a relatively light night in terms of volume of chances, all 3 Rangers goals featured Cam Ward going down and leaving room to shoot into the top half of the net. While it is possible to debate whether the level of desperation was warranted in all 3 cases, the good version of Ward tends to be the one that plays patient, calm and simple hockey and positionally puts himself in the line of shots. Justin Faulk and his partner Ron Hainsey had arguably the toughest nights of the Canes players. The Rangers very clearly wanted to match Nash against the Hainsey/Faulk pairing, and it ultimately garnered results. Faulk was in front of the net for both rebound goals and was victimized as noted on the Rick Nash breakaway goal. Overall, the trio of veterans were disappointing in Tuesday’s loss.
3) Combination of hunger and soundness
This game very much had the smell of the Montreal and Ottawa losses last week. The Hurricanes were not bad on the level from mid-October, but again a couple of the other team’s goals were pretty directly the result of Hurricanes miscues first Skinner being beat to the front of the net by his defensive assignment and then a bad Ron Hainsey turnover.
At a basic level, the hunger and assertiveness was there especially early, but it was not matched by the soundness and that ultimately cost the Hurricanes the game again.
Viktor Stalberg: He is quietly becoming a big story as a depth player. Despite playing limited minutes with offensively limited line mates and no power play time, he is now on target for 22-23 goals. Entering Tuesday’s game he had 4 goals including 3 that contributed significantly to Hurricanes wins, and tonight’s 2 goals did everything possible to put the ball on the tee for a huge road victory. He is now second behind only Jeff Skinner in goals for the Carolina Hurricanes. It is unclear if the scoring pace is sustainable, but regardless fits well with Nordstrom opposite him at wing, as both players skate well and attack the puck both in terms of the forecheck and getting to/winning 50/50 loose pucks.
Jay McClement: I am in the camp that thinks the Hurricanes might be able to get more out of a fourth line with someone other than McClement centering it. But giving credit where it is due, he is in the middle of a (formerly?) fourth line that is playing well right now, and he played a direct role in the second Stalberg goal when he forced the puck to the front of the net where Stalberg cleaned up a rebound.
The Hainsey call and Hainsey/Faulk in general: While I disagree with the Hainsey call, I am not sure it is as outlandish as originally thought. Hainsey was into the Rangers’ player early and though he did not hook him, he did seem to get tied up with him. Regardless, Hainsey and Faulk were on the ice and largely front and center for all 3 Rangers’ goals.
The Jordan Staal effect: Once the Hurricanes jumped out to a 2-0 lead, the absence of Jordan Staal faded into the background a bit. After going strength on strength for most of the home stand pairing Jordan Staal’s line with the top defense pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, last week on the road, Peters balanced things more mostly separating the 2 sets. Peters mostly tried to use Jordan Staal’s line to support the other 2 defense pairings often playing him with Hainsey/Faulk. The net effect of being on the ice with Jordan Staal for defensemen is that they have to play less defense (because Staal drives play into the offensive zone) and have more help when playing defense (because Staal is also very good in his own end). On Tuesday, Hainsey/Faulk had to spend more time defending and struggled at times doing so.
Next up is game 2 without Jordan Staal on Thursday night in Boston.