The diminishing situation
Increasingly my Daily Cup of Joe article from December 11 has become an ominous suggestion of impending doom.
In that article I wrote:
If the Hurricanes struggle through the home stretch, the run of road games that follow could put the 2018-19 season in a precarious position leading up to the midway point of the season. If instead the Hurricanes can make hay at home, the team could enter the important stretch of divisional games higher in the standings and with momentum.
I followed that up in my game preview for that same day by reiterating the importance of the stretch ahead when I wrote:
So if the Hurricanes can build momentum during the upcoming home-heavy stretch, hopefully it carries into the middle part of the season that has been problematic in recent years. If instead the team struggles in these next seven games and the negative momentum carries into the road stretch, the Hurricanes will find themselves in an all to familiar position in mid-January trying to dig out of a hole.
And here we are.
With Saturday’s lackluster loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins the Hurricanes are now 1-4-1 through the first six games of the stretch. And suddenly the Hurricanes are seven points out of a playoff spot (adjusted for games played). After the finale of the seven-game home-heavy stretch on Sunday against Boston, the team takes to the road for six out of the next eight.
If the trajectory does not change dramatically and rapidly, the team could well emerge from that run focused on draft lottery positioning, player development and other things outside of success in the 2018-19 season.
Abbreviated recap of 3-0 loss to the Penguins
The story of Saturday’s 3-0 loss was Sidney Crosby having an early holiday feast at the Hurricanes expense. He had three of the spectacular playmaking efforts that put him among the league’s few elite players in dishing out assists for bang-bang type goals. Jordan Staal and whoever was trying to help him had nothing for an answer through two periods when Staal left the game with an upper body injury.
On the Hurricanes side of the ledger, the story was a familiar one. The team mustered a fairly typical combination of not generating enough truly good chances, not finishing when they did and facing a (legitimately) in this case hot goalie. The Hurricanes did have some grade A chances to score. Warren Foegele failed to score on two separate partial breakaways seemingly getting too deep at which point there is no shooting angle at which point hoping for a hole against an NHL goalie is usually fruitless. Jordan Martinook had another point blank chance but was thwarted. And the Canes missed the net on a couple other grade A chances. The team also mustered its usual share of low-probability just chucking the puck at the net once facing a deficit. And though it is not always the case, I thought Matt Murray was legitimately stellar on Saturday night. Worth noting is that Curtis McElhinney returned and played well despite the outcome.
Player and other notes
1) Losing best against best
As noted above, the outcome of the game was decided by the match up of Jordan Staal versus Sidney Crosby. Crosby was just too much and generated all that the Penguins needed offensively with Staal and company just not having much for answers.
2) Sebastian Aho
Make no mistake that he continues to be a bright spot and clearly part of the solution more than part of the problem. That said, one thing that does stand out about his game is his lack of ability to break down defenses by cutting through the teeth of the defense like other high-end scoring centers like McDavid, MacKinnon, Crosby and others. With a defenseman in front of him entering the offensive zone, his path forward is almost always to the outside. That can and does work as he can use his speed and skating ability to make space and buy time to find team mates. But a greater ability to break down defenses by forging into and through them can sometimes be more effective and expand means of scoring on nights when the defense is sound and pushes everything outside to non-dangerous scoring chances.
3) The goaltending
From the category of finding a new way to struggle, goaltending continues to not be the problem since the team settled on Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek as its duo. Mrazek was not perfect, but he was good enough when McElhinney was out with an injury. And McElhinney was decent or better in Saturday’s 3-0 loss. First and foremost, the team’s current power outage offensively is its Achilles’ heel.
4) Speaking of lack of scoring
The Hurricanes have now been held to a goal or less in six out of their last ten games.
5) Too much patience?
I think we are witnessing Rod Brind’Amour’s inexperience as a head coach and also the lack of help in that regard on the bench. On the one hand, I prefer Brind’Amour’s patience and long haul mentality over too much knee-jerk reaction coaching. But at the same time, the NHL is unforgiving in terms of extended losing runs that span more than a few games. A critical part of an NHL coach’s job is finding ways to spark or jolt his team out of rough patches before they sink the season. No doubt, if the Hurricanes ‘stick to their game’ they will eventually rebound and emerge from the current struggles simply because of the long NHL season and enough opportunities for redemption. The problem is that the probability that this rebound is another case of too little too late after the season is lost is growing rapidly right now.
The players do need to stick with it, but the coaching staff also needs to play a role in finding some modest amount of success in the here and now such that the season is not lost.
Up next is a quick turnaround on Sunday and the last of the seven-game home-heavy stretch before the Christmas break. The schedule offers no mercy as the opponent is a Boston Bruins team that comes in having won three straight and sports another top line that can do the damage by itself just like Crosy’s line did on Saturday.