After the Hurricanes blew 3-goal leads in consecutive games to start the 2016-17 NHL season, there was some joking on Twitter and elsewhere that the Hurricanes just needed to get down 3 goals instead and then turn that situation into a win. That came very close to happening on Tuesday night in Edmonton.
The game was loose both ways early. Things started inauspiciously when Ward was beaten on a shot that might have tipped off of Nakladal’s stick. Nevertheless it was a savable shot from a wide angle with enough time to track the puck. Then shortly thereafter Ron Hainsey took a small whack at a puck being passed out from behind the net and put it right into the net. The first period actually saw the Hurricanes with a good number of chances. I counted 5 at least medium grade scoring chances off the rush alone (Staal X2, Lindholm, Skinner, Bickell) in the first period. But the Hurricanes exited the first period down 2-0. When the Hurricanes were slow to react to a face-off loss early in the second period, they fell to a 3-0 deficit and seemed doomed.
But to the Hurricanes credit, the team eventually stormed back behind another HUGE effort by the line of Skinner/Rask/Stempniak. Skinner had a phenomenal game offensively despite not netting a goal. He collected a big 6 shots on goal, many of the good scoring chance variety. He had a pretty assist feeding Lee Stempniak in front of the net. And he got the puck to the front of the net in the last desperation rush and then nearly finished in the waning seconds. Lee Stempniak continued his prolific scoring in a Hurricanes uniform with 2 more goals, and Victor Rask collected assists on both goals. Cam Ward also seemed to settle down and find a rhythm as the game wore on, and Justin Faulk made some needed small plays stepping up to win pucks on both goals.
The start and result are disappointing, but the resolve and second half of the game were positive.
‘What I’m watching’ check in
You can read the full ‘What I’m watching’ style preview that I write before each game HERE.
1) Performance under pressure/playing with a lead
I would not pin the Canes poor start completely on the Oilers dialing up the pressure. The Hurricanes were a bit disjointed at times trying to move the puck out of their own end, but the first period was equally generous in terms of scoring chances in the early going. And the Hurricanes never played with a lead in Tuesday’s game, so this is mostly an N/A.
2) Slavin/Faulk (and the blue line in general since the pairings were shuffled)
The duo from the first 2 games was separated in favor of Slavin/Pesce and the reunited Hainsey/Faulk. Hainsey had a really tough time early taking a penalty when Connor McDavid split him and Faulk and then scoring the own goal later in the first period. The own goal was mostly bad luck, but Hainsey inexplicably and obviously dangerously seemed to be trying to swipe the puck toward but I guess past his own net when he banged it in. Faulk had a solid game offensively and other than a near miss falling down with the puck in the neutral zone on the power play at least averted ‘big oopses.’
In terms of defense, I thought Brett Pesce was the Hurricanes best defenseman on Tuesday night, and I would probably rank his partner Jaccob Slavin second. This might sound strange, but I would tentatively consider the young duo of Slavin and Pesce to be the team’s best defensive pairing and would position Faulk and Hainsey as the second pairing and 1 that you want on the ice in scoring situations with the team’s best offensive forwards. This is obviously subject to change over the course of the season but is still an interesting development.
3) The reinforcements
None of the new entries into the lineup (Phil Di Giuseppe, Martin Frk, Jakub Nakladal) had a huge impact on the game. I thought Di Giuseppe played his game and was not out of place trying to also fill Nestrasil’s role as a partner for on the boards puck cycling with Jordan Staal. Martin Frk was arguably most at fault on Edmonton’s third goal when Jay McClement harmlessly lost a face-off and the Canes in total just seemed really slow reacting leading to a quick blast by Ward for a goal against. He uncorked a couple shots but never really came close to scoring. And playing in his first game of the season, Nakladal was serviceable and ‘big oops’ free playing on the third pairing next to Noah Hanifin. On the first goal against, perhaps he could have closed and blocked the shot, but one can hardly fault him for giving up a low probability shot from the outside that usually the goalie will handle.
4) The goalie position
Coach Bill Peters elected to go back to Cam Ward. Overall, I thought Ward’s effort was better than the first game. But I also think the fact that a game with 3 goals against including 1 that the goalie would probably want back and a sub .900 save percentage makes me feel better about our goaltending situation is commentary in itself. That said, Ward was solid and looked confident in the second half of the game and made the saves necessary to give his team a chance to claw back into it. The positive spin is that it was progress. The negative spin is that the goalie at the other end of the rink was better and part of what tipped the game in Edmonton’s favor.
Jeff Skinner: On Twitter, I commented about signs of regression in terms of decision-making by Skinner. He had the puck on his stick at the defensive blue line matched against McDavid’s line and opted to try to make a move instead of just conscientiously just making a simple play to get the puck out of the offensive zone. Sure enough, the puck was behind Ward not too much later. This builds upon both overtimes ending with him trying to do too much individually leading to a rush the other way to end the game. But Jeff Skinner also continued his strong offensive play. The Hurricanes first star would have to go to Stempniak for his 2 goals, but I actually think Skinner played even better. He created and made decent attempts with scoring chances all night and got stronger as the game wore on. I think it is important for the coaching staff to spend a little bit of time talking to Jeff Skinner about the increased importance of not trying to do too much in dangerous situations now that he is playing in the top 6 against other teams’ best players who will make poor risk/reward decisions very costly.
Lee Stempniak: Wow! At some point, he will inevitably slow down, but he has been nothing short of sensational through 3 games. What encourages me most is not the point total (which is great too obviously) but rather 2 other things. First is gaining an appreciation for how complete of a hockey player he is ranging from finishing to playmaking from handling the puck to winning it on the boards and so on and so on. Second is the seemingly instant chemistry he has with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner. A likely ingredient to increased 2016-17 scoring is Jeff Skinner finding a higher gear. I think Stempniak could very well be the fuel for that.
Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen: At the other end of the spectrum is the young guns line. Now a couple games into the season, I think ‘invisible’ is an apt description for Teuvo Teravainen’s play at even strength. Both he and Sebastian Aho have been an integral part of a power play that has been good, but for people who can separate power play ice time and even strength ice time, nearly all of their good plays have been of the man advantage variety. I counted a stretch of 5 times where they lost puck battles on the boards.
When you net it out more broadly, Skinner/Rask/Stempniak is utterly on fire and inseparable for the time being. Nothing else has really worked at all giving Coach Bill Peters a set of so far random 11 puzzle pieces that he must find a way to build something else out of very quickly.
Next up is another 9pm start on Thursday night in Calgary.