First and foremost, the Hurricanes picked up another win on Saturday. The victory runs the teams streak to three and also pushes their record to 3-2-2 through seven out of nine games during the road-heavy December stretch. My goal at the beginning was a 5-4 mark which now takes only a split of two road games next week to accomplish.
Second and nearly as importantly, Scott Darling was stellar in the win. He rightfully won the first star, outplayed a Vezina-worth opposing goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky and was the best play in the ice when the Hurricanes needed. His role in the win was significant. If this proves to be a turning point in Darling’s 2017-18 season, the win will be even more significant.
The 2017-18 roller coaster
The roller coaster ride continues at a dizzying pace. In the wee hours of the night, the team was wrapping up a loss to Anaheim that pushed its record on the road trip to a meager 0-2-2 and the team’s overall record down to .500. I do not think it was a gross overstatement to say that the team’s season was slipping away.
But after grinding out too gutsy even if not pretty wins past regulation the road and then returning home to be a good and rested Columbus Blue Jackets team on Saturday, the team is suddenly trending up again. The Canes are now three games above .500, within three points of a playoff spot (adjusting for games played) and on a winning streak.
Saturday’s win over the Columbus Blue Jackets
Roller coaster ride aside, the game was a good one in many ways on Saturday. Not surprisingly, after playing and traveling the night before and just arriving home after two weeks on the road, the Hurricanes did not have their A game. For the second night in a row, the usually Corsi strong Hurricanes were defeated in terms of shot total, possession metrics and many other ways with the ice often tilted into their end of the rink.
Unlike many other games that saw the Hurricanes play a good or better first period but not really catch much for breaks and get rewarded for it, the Canes did catch a break early in the game. With commander of net front presence Justin Williams and his first lieutenant both hanging around the top of the crease (where goals happen), Jordan Staal threw a puck fairly harmlessly to the front of the net from an odd angle. Sergei Bobrovsky was beaten five hole by his own defenseman trying to defend the crossing pass. And just like that the Hurricanes were up 1-0.
Early on, Scott Darling looked sharp. His rebound control was the good version of Scott Darling, and he also had a couple of top notch saves going quickly from one post to the other and making saves with an outstretched pad. But Columbus struck back shortly after the Staal goal when a close range tip found its way through Darling’s pads and into the net behind him. The recurrence of what has been a problem at times had to make Canes fans fearful that impending doom was on the way. But the goal in the first period was all that Darling would allow on a night when he was incredibly sharp on a night when he was the better goalie and best player on the ice.
Tied at 1-1 entering the second period, the goal had to be to just survive and slide through the second period that has nearly unanimously been an Achilles’ heel of late. But instead, the Hurricanes used the period to climb out to a 2-1 lead when a pretty passing play found Noah Hanifin joining the rush and first skillfully receiving and shooting off the rush and then showing great hands to retrieve and quickly finish on a rebound while still flying by the net. The goal was yet another in Hanifin’s growing resume as a good offensive defenseman.
The third period had its ups and downs and also its share of tension with the Hurricanes clinging to a 2-1 lead. I said at the beginning of the third period that it would take at least three goals to win but am thrilled that I was wrong. Though the Hurricanes did not have a bad period in the third, the story was again Scott Darling who was there to be whatever was needed at the last line of defense to preserve the win.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets
1) Scott Darling
One game does not make a streak or a trend. That said, a streak must start at one and grow from there. If you wanted to script out the kind of game that COULD serve as a turning point for Darling who was sputtering entering the game, this would be it. Saturday’s game was not at all the kind where the team in front of him helped carry him to a win. Rather he was the story in the win. In the process, I think he might have preserved his position as the #1 netminder with Ward pushing in a good way from the #2 slot.
2) Justin Williams and first lieutenant Brock McGinn
The Hurricanes started Saturday’s game with McGinn joining Williams and Staal on one of the top lines. Watching Williams and McGinn play together (which they have a decent amount recently) paints a striking picture of what it looks like when you have a group of players who make a regular (not part time) habit of going to the front of the net. The volume of times where a point shot looks like a decent option because of traffic in front is high, and the volume of goals or at least dangerous shots also rises. Based on McGinn’s similar propensity to play hockey at the top of the crease, I have dubbed him the first lieutenant to Williams who is the commander of net front presence.
3) Noah Hanifin
Ironically, sliding down into the third pairing seemed to be a huge positive not a setback and a negative for Noah Hanifin. His ice time did not change too significantly when he slid down into the third pairing and his offensive game which was already trending upward seemed to use some combination of more favorable match ups and possibly less pressure on the defensive part of his game as a catalyst.
What is most significant about Hanifin’s game right now is the fact that he has transitioned from being a young player who was mostly just learning on the job to being a player who is using his strengths to drive wins. The difference between the two is a huge step in his development. Suddenly a course is being charted that sees even the #5 defenseman version of Noah Hanifin be a player that makes the team better.
4) Klas Dahlbeck and the balancing of ice time on the blue line
With the team looking a bit gassed yesterday and then playing the second half of a back-to-back today, Peters opted to put Klas Dahlbeck and his fresh legs into the lineup and also spread ice time more evenly. Dahlbeck played 17:45 mostly without incident at least of the big variety which makes for consecutive games where he has stepped into the lineup cold and looked decent. In addition, the minutes were spread about as evenly as we have seen this season. All five of the other defensemen were within a tight range of 19:46 and 20:49 of ice time. And though the Hurricanes were under duress a bit at times in a game often tilted into their defensive end, the egregious coverage break downs that have plagued the team at times recently were mostly missing.
4) Brock McGinn
He continues to impress me. Relative to my expectations at the start of the season, he easily ranks as the player who has most exceeded my expectations and also the player about whom I was most wrong about. I had him pegged as a serviceable #12 or #13 forward who offered some energy and physicality to the lineup. The jury is still out on whether McGinn’s scoring production ceiling is high enough to be a regular top 9 forward, but regardless of how that plays out, I now view him as at a minimum being a player who if he regularly sits on a fourth line is capable of stepping into a higher role to provide a spark and/or fill in when injuries necessitate it. Even more interesting is asking if even that is too low of a target. McGinn’s scoring pace of 38 points based on 82 games is actually pretty impressive considering that he is only averaging 12:45 of ice time and has seen only intermittent spot duty on the power play.
5) Jordan Staal
Staal’s goal was a bit more fortuitous bounce than pure goal scorer’s goal, but he played a strong game aside from that. On a night when the Hurricanes played more defense and in their own end than the norm, Staal was one of the players who regularly helped defend and also advance the puck to relieve pressure.
6) The power play
One of few negatives on the night was the Hurricanes power play. The power play went 2 for 2 in terms of taking a penalty that turned a power play into a minute of 4-on-4 and a minute of penalty kill. This was not nearly as catastrophic as the two shorthanded goals against in San Jose, but nonetheless it was another negative night for the power play.
Next up is an odd Tuesday matinee at 2pm in Toronto for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ and NHL’s 100th anniversary, so start doing what you can to block your calendar and/work from home on Tuesday afternoon if you have not already.