The Hurricanes first two wins featured bursts of strong play, the ability to make key plays when needed, high entertainment value and maybe more than anything just a ‘find a way’ approach to winning hockey games.
In terms of putting together a complete effort, Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was by far the Hurricanes best effort thus far in the 2019-20 season. The team suffered from a few costly ‘oopses’ again in the first period, but aside from intermittent issues handling the puck in their own end, the Hurricanes dictated play and by far had the better of possession and chances throughout pretty much the entire game.
The first period started with a frenetic pace mostly to the Hurricanes benefit. Brock McGinn fired off the post and then fired another shot from close range early, and the Hurricanes collected four or five decent scoring chances on the first two shifts against former teammate Curtis McElhinney. In the middle of it, Brett Pesce shot through traffic created by Andrei Svechnikov to push the Hurricanes to a 1-0 lead only 1:14 into the game. But from that point forward, the Hurricanes shot themselves in the foot with repeated puck management ‘oopses’ in their own end. First, a soft, blind clear to the middle by Martin Necas was stolen and quickly moved stick to stick for a quick shot through traffic and a goal. Next Kevin Shattenkirk shot through traffic on the power play to put Tampa Bay up 2-1. And then Sebastian Aho offered not one but two ‘wish’ clearing attempts that were both stolen. The second one was quickly behind Petr Mrazek courtesy of Steven Stamkos.
The first period and its 3-1 deficit were odd. Measured in time controlling play, the period was a strong one for the Hurricanes. But plagued by puck management issues, the Hurricanes gifted away too many grade A scoring chances and paid for it dearly. And in the middle of it all, Petr Mrazek seemed to have on blinders in terms of tracking the puck. All three goals saw Mrazek unable to find the puck the through traffic. He had at least two other near misses where he had no idea where the puck was.
But in terms of controlling play, the Hurricanes picked up right where they left off in the second period. The period was utterly dominant with the Hurricanes out-shooting the Lightning by a 16 to 0 margin. Following a theme from the previous two comeback wins, the charge was started by another Hurricanes power play goal again by Erik Haula and again from within a step of the crease. He has quickly established himself as a difference-maker with the man advantage as a finisher in close. Despite the massive second period surge, the Hurricanes netted only that lone goal and for the third time in three games entered the third period down, this time by a 3-2 margin.
The third period featured more of the same with the Hurricanes dominating play and eventually being rewarded. This time it was Dougie Hamilton firing through a screen by Erik Haula set up in his new office within a step of the crease. The goal tied the game at 3-3 and set up another frenetic finish. Ultimately the game pushed to overtime for the third straight game. Following the game’s theme, the Hurricanes again had the better of play and won when Jordan Staal fed Jaccob Slavin who finished just up under the cross bar for another fun win.
The Hurricanes out-shot a good Tampa Bay Lightning team by a whopping margin of 27 to 2 over the final two periods and overtime.
Impressive to say the least!
Player and other notes
1) Erik Haula and the power play as a difference-maker
In consecutive games against good teams down two goals and desperately needing to scratch to make a game of it, Erik Haula did exactly that from in close on the power play. Without an Erik Haula power play tally to narrow the gap, build momentum and apply pressure, might the Hurricanes be 1-2 right now?
2) The blue line as a catalyst
The Hurricanes top 5 defenders have been tremendous through three games. Especially when on considers that a chunk of the goals against were driven by forward turnovers (one was admittedly Edmundson’s), the defense has been better than goals against might suggest against well above average offensive competition. More significantly, the blue line has been the catalyst for the offense. The group has now tallied an impressive five goals in three games including three on Sunday. In addition, three other goals were pretty directly the result of a point shot via tip or rebound. Player by player — Dougie Hamilton 1 goal, 2 point shot assists; shootout game-winner; Brett Pesce 1 goal, 1 point shot assist; Jaccob Slavin 2 goals including overtime-game-winner; Jake Gardiner 1 goal including overtime game-winner.
The tally is all three game-winners counting Hamilton’s shootout tally, five total goals.
Through three games, I think any of Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have a legitimate claim to being the team’s best player so far. Of the rest of the roster, I think only Erik Haula and possibly Teuvo Teravainen could climb into that conversation.
3) Petr Mrazek
The game was an odd one for Mrazek. On the one hand, none of the three goals against him were necessarily soft goals. He was screened on all three. But by book one of my measures of a goalie in a groove is his ability to seemingly see right through the mess in front of him and find the puck no matter what. As noted above, Mrazek was the exact opposite on Sunday night. He was screened on all three goals against and at least two other players where he never reacted to shots. One cannot say if he rebounded or not because the bizarre game saw him face only two shots in the 40 plus minutes that followed. This one is maybe worth watching heading into Mrazek’s next start.
4) Puck management
Arguably the Hurricanes greatest Achilles’ heel thus far has been puck management in their own end. Two of Tampa Bay’s goals came directly from the bad variety of defensive zone turnovers by Necas and Aho. Edmundson had one on Saturday. Through three games, digging holes and then storming back to win has been incredibly fun, but this recipe is not a great one for the long haul. Especially with the young group, I will be watching to see if the team can tighten up in terms of not losing the puck in bad places in its own end.
5) Dougie Hamilton
Following on my more general comments on the blue line, Dougie Hamilton has arguably been the team’s best player offensively through three games. His ability to get pucks to the front of the net and in the vicinity of teammates has netted a good number of goals and scoring chances on top of that. The version of Dougie Hamilton that we have seen through three games is the wild card version of him that is maximum upside. He is capable defensively but also a rare offensive catalyst from the back end.
6) Brock McGinn
He was not rewarded for it, but Brock McGinn had a solid game offensively. He regularly found himself in high danger areas with the puck on his stick and made no mistake getting the puck to the net. He had a post, a good chance on net and another near miss early. McGinn just does not have the finishing ability of a couple other forwards, but if he plays with a nose for the net and a propensity to shoot like he did on Sunday, he will produce at least at a good depth scoring clip.
7) Haydn Fleury
As much as it pains me to say it, I have not been overly impressed with Fleury’s play through three games. It is often the little things that make a difference. On two goals against, Fleury was in front of the shooter, tried to block the shot by turning and going down but in the process missed and became a screen as the puck found its way past the Canes goalie. In my opinion, he was also slow to read the play and help to the middle on the Edmundson turnover that led to a goal against. Finally, he still exhibits the same hockey 101 mentality to just get the puck out of his own end too often. The results are too many times where Fleury possession in his own end leads to the opponent’s possession in the neutral zone when he quickly defers to safe play/small mistake. I oscillate game by game on whether he is a player for whom continued patience will yield rewards or whether he really just will never be more than a serviceable #6/#7 type defenseman. With Brind’Amour seemingly having the same propensity to play with five defensemen late in games and Trevor van Riemsdyk nearing return, could it be time to collect some value for Fleury and just go with someone like Forsling in the #7 slot? I would have leaned against that a few weeks ago but increasingly wonder if the team will consider this route.
Next up is a trip to South Florida on Tuesday to take on the Florida Panthers.