In round 2 of 3 playing 3 of the 4 Stanley Cup finalists over the past 2 years and both champions, the Hurricanes did battle with the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night at PNC Arena.
Recap of Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks
The game had some of the same feel as the Penguins match up 2 days early. The Hurricanes pushed pace and attacked early in a strong first period. The Hurricanes generally had the better of the attack time, possession and shots in the first period but also struggled early with the same attention to details that ultimately cost them in the Penguins game. Within roughly the first 5 minutes, the Hurricanes offered Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin turnovers in their own end, Ryan Murphy getting turned around and beaten to a puck on the end boards leading to a scoring chance and Hanifin wandering a bit in offensive zone, turning the puck over in a bad place and a 2-on-1 rush the other way. The Blackhawks finally cashed in for the first goal of the game when the Hurricanes were a little slow with a line change leaving Blackhawk defenseman Kempny all kinds of time and space to step up and then step into an uncontested shot from the top of the face-off circle that beat Ward. But around a few fits of loose play, the Hurricanes were also attacking and generating scoring chances. The Canes quickly pulled even at 1-1 when Jordan Staal went 2005 version Erik Cole for a rush from the right side around a defenseman and the the front of the net where Cole-like chaos ensued and Elias Lindholm banged in a rebound with a couple whacks. Barely over a minute later, Lee Stempniak figured out exactly where to be while line mates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen worked their magic. For the second consecutive game, nettd a rebound goal into open net on the opposite side of the original shot. The Hurricanes finished the first period with a 2-1 lead and a roughly 2-to-1 advantage in terms of scoring chances.
The second period saw the Blackhawks push back. The story of the period was the goalie play. Ward made a number of good saves to hold the 2-1 lead, and Scott Darling matched him at the other end of the rink. The best chances on the Hurricanes side came when Lee Stempniak hit the post on a power play deflection and when Jaccob Slavin rushed through a series of Blackhawks on his way to trying his patented shootout shot trying to go backhand up over the goalie’s shoulder only to have Darling sniff it out.
The third period saw the Hurricanes strike fairly quickly before the Blackhawks could pressure the Canes with a 1-goal lead. A fortuitous bounce saw a puck roll off of Patrick Kane’s stick and right to a waiting Jay McClement who looked like an everyday sniper between the face-off circles beating Scott Darling with a quick blast. But as one might expect, the Blackhawks did not then go quietly into the night. After a couple decent chances, the Hawks finally pulled to within 3-2 when Jonathan Toews worked over Hanifin to create a skating and a passing lane from the right side and more or less shot the puck off of Vinnie Hinostroza and into the net. The Hurricanes then had a chance to finish things early with a 2-on-1 rush but failed to get a shot off at which points the last 3 1/2 minutes became a “hold on for dear life” event mostly hemmed in their own end and trying to survive. Ward made a couple big saves, and survive they did for a big win. The killer instinct was again lacking, but when you beat a team like the Blackhawks, it is a good night.
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1) Continuation of Wednesday’s level of play
One can nitpick about the Hurricanes struggle with details of late and also with the inability to close out strong in the third period, but at a more general level, the Hurricanes faced another elite team and matched or bettered them again for scoring chances, attack time, speed and most other measures of attacking hockey. The trend at that basic level continues to be positive.
2) Greater attention to detail
Meh. Despite winning, I think the Canes left a lot to be desired in this regard. The start was sloppy and the volume of potentially costly mistakes was overshadowed by Ward playing lights out when necessary and the Hurricanes also creating a bunch of chances themselves. Missing Faulk is hurting, and even normally sound Jaccob Slavin had an uncharacteristically sloppy night coughing up the puck in his own end multiple times.
3) Another challenge for the defense
I am torn on how to grade this. While it is true that the Canes allowed only 2 goals to an elite team, I lean toward giving a heavy share of the credit to Ward who saw a high volume of tough chances in the 29 shots that he faced.
Cam Ward: I think he was even better than his 2 goals in 29 shots against would suggest. The team in front of him seemed to oscillate between controlling play, driving the puck into the offensive zone and attacking and being sloppy defending and/or handling the puck in their own end. The game had elements of a familiar story from years past and even earlier this season that saw the Canes too often win in terms of shot volume but lose the game on account of a few too many costly ‘oopses.’
Fun hockey: One of subtle but significant stories of the 2016-17 season has been the Hurricanes gradual transformation to a skating, attacking and to a work in process degree scoring team. The I say “work in progress” because the team probably needs a couple more pure finishers to bump up the goal scoring, but the team really is making a noticeable transition to a team that skates and attacks. The result is a more entertaining brand of hockey.
Lee Stempniak: I have started to refer to Lee Stempniak as the chameleon. In his very early days in a Hurricanes’ uniform playing primarily with Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask, most noticeable to me was his knack for finding passing lanes and creating scoring chances for line mates when playing with the puck on his stick. In the current line configuration, he is playing well with young Fins Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. With both players being the type who like to play with the puck on their sticks. Stempniak looks equally comfortable reading plays and positioning without the puck and mostly just regularly going to where goals happen figuring if he does often enough the puck will show up. Sure enough, he has rebound goals in consecutive games now to go with a near miss off the post on a power play deflection.
Jay McClement: His goal proved to be a huge 1 to buy a little bit of breathing room early in the third period before the Blackhawks really pushed and also provided a cushion that was ultimately needed. Kudos to him for picking a great spot to step up and provide timely depth scoring.
Really close to putting it all togther?: The Canes seem really close to putting it all together. In November, the team seemed to sort things out defensively but were struggling to generate scoring chances at least on the road. More recently, the Hurricanes have been generating a bunch of chances offensively and converting a reasonable number of them but have at probably partly due to the absence of Justin Faulk been looser defensively again. If the team can figure out both halves of the game at the same time, the NHL should look out.
Next up is a quick turnaround and a New Year’s Eve tilt in Tampa Bay that finishes the Canes gauntlet week against 3 of the 4 Stanley Cup Finalists from the past 2 years.