“Results matter” has been a familiar refrain throughout the 2017-18 season here at Canes and Coffee. In a positive way, that definitely holds true for Friday’s big win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Somewhat surprisingly, the Penguins are one of the teams that the Hurricanes are currently battling for a playoff spot, so winning in regulation represents a four-point swing versus losing.
With the win, the Hurricanes are basically tied with the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference if you adjust for games played. And at six games above .500, the Hurricanes are firmly in the middle of the Metropolitan Division cluster and within range of the top half teams. With the win, the Hurricanes also pushed the struggling Penguins down another notch.
As for the game, the first period featured good intensity and pace from both teams though I thought the Hurricanes were a bit off timing-wise in terms of moving the puck. The intermittent puck management issues from Wednesday’s game carried over to some degree. My quick tally had Sebastian Aho, Justin Williams, Noah Hanifin and a few others coughing up the puck in potentially dangerous places. But the period also featured the Hurricanes matching physical play and speed and also making a strong effort both on the power play and 5-on-5 to get bodies and pucks to the front of the net at the same time. But the Hurricanes were not rewarded and the only goal of the period went to the Penguins when Justin Williams got tangled up with Patrik Hornqvist and Sebastian Aho was a step or two slow covering his defenseman assignment Brian Dumoulin who jumped up into the rush to finish a deflected pass from close range.
But following a different script than the recent norm, the Hurricanes pushed up in the second period. After a decent first period, the Hurricanes came out even stronger in the second period. Within the first five minutes of the period, the Canes had a point blank chance by Jordan Staal, another good chance by Phil Di Giuseppe, a couple big hits and a power play. It took nearly half of the second period, but the Hurricanes were finally rewarded when a strong push up the middle of the ice by Elias Lindholm led to a close in chance for Derek Ryan who used a defender as a screen to beat the goalie and tie the game at 1-1. Next, the Hurricanes seemed to score on a screened shot by Jaccob Slavin only to have it waived off for goalie interference. But Slavin and the Hurricanes rebounded quickly when Slavin made a nifty move to get the puck to the front of the net from where Sebastian Aho banged the second goal shortly after the no goal call.
The third period featured a little bit too much survival and not enough counter-punching for my liking, but Slavin/Pesce were phenomenal defending in their own end, and Cam Ward had as many answers as needed.
As someone who has ridden through all of the team’s ups and downs in recent years, this game felt like the kind of game that the team just never seemed to win in the recent past on multiple levels – an elite team, a narrow lead against a pressing team late, a big home game during the holidays, etc.
But the Hurricanes did win and continued on their winning path. Are we witnessing the last step in the transformation from rebuilding to taking the next step and pushing into the playoffs?
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) Jordan Staal’s physical play
In a game that had good pace and physical intensity throughout, Jordan Staal stood out above a pretty high level of play. He was physical throughout. His biggest hit was on Kuhnackl on the wall, but he played a strong power forward game throughout in leading the way. His 21:15 of ice time was his third highest in games that ended in regulation this season.
2) Happy birthday Derek Ryan!
His goal was a huge one at an important time. After a decent first period and an even better start to the second period, the Canes had played halfway through the game with nothing but a deficit to show for their effort. Ryan’s goal evened things up and kept the Hurricanes from starting to press and possibly change up from what had been the right kind of play.
On a night when the Hurricanes’ had a few things cooking offensively, I actually thought this line was as good as any. Ryan had the all-important first goal and the trio also did the work the no goal on Slavin’s point shot. Brock McGinn also had a couple really good scoring chances off the rush in the second period.
4) Cam Ward
He continued his run of steady and solid play. He did not need to steal a win for a Hurricanes team that was better than the Penguins, but in a 2-1 game, Ward was also given no margin for error. He did not need any in continuing his run of strong play.
After a bit of a downturn in late November through early December, the Hurricanes top defense pairing has regained its high level of play. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had a solid game against a Penguins offense with speed on the wings and elite offensive players at the center position. Each player had a handful of potential goal-saving plays. Slavin’s best was probably his diving pass deflection that kept the puck from getting to Sidney Crosby for a point blank chance. Pesce’s best was probably his block on Jake Guentzel’s shot that seemed destined to tie the game. But those were the just the top level highlights from a strong night overall.
6) Increasing expectations and swagger
The Hurricanes are gradually starting to look like one of those good teams that plays like they expect to win regardless of current circumstances. The 1-0 deficit after the first period seemed to only boost the Hurricanes’ level of play coming out to start the second period. Similarly, the bizarre no goal call just seemed to push the Hurricanes find a higher gear to rise above and prevail. Slavin who was the shooter on the no goal made a nifty move to get the puck to the crease for Sebastian Aho’s game-winning goal only shortly after the no goal call.
7) One for the dedicated fan base
The day is coming when PNC Arena will again be filled with home fans wearing Canes gear, but as of right now popular Eastern Conference teams still draw well from the many transplants who live in or near Raleigh, North Carolina for the same reasons as those from the Caniac Nation. That makes these holiday week wins over division foes even more important for the fan base. After losing ugly to the Rangers to kick off the Thanksgiving week home stand, Friday’s win against the Penguins was a nice reversal.
Next up for the Hurricanes is a quick turnaround after a fairly long flight to play in St. Louis against the Blues on Saturday night. I have not seen official word yet, but the game will likely feature an important opportunity for Scott Darling to rebound from the tough outing in Toronto last week.