On Saturday night in St. Louis, the Carolina Hurricanes four-game winning streak came to a halt at the hands of the Blues in a 3-2 loss.
What should not be lost is how well the team is playing exiting December if you look backwards any farther than Saturday night. The Hurricanes were 2-1 for the week, and are 7-2 in their last 9 games. Further, the Canes will enter January in only a single point out of a playoff spot which is closer than any year end in recent history. Yes, the Hurricanes are on the wrong side of the cut line, but unlike past seasons, the gap is small enough that the season will be decided by how well the team plays in the second half not by whether the team can pull off a miracle and make up for a poor first half of the season.
As for the game, I would rate it as ‘meh’ in many regards. The Hurricanes started out sluggish and sloppy a bit like the Montreal game. Only 43 seconds into the game, a pass from behind the net found its way past Klas Dahlbeck and found Kyle Brodziak in between Teuvo Teravainen and Jordan Staal for a quick finish. The first 10 minutes or so saw the Blues playing faster and more aggressive and with the Hurricanes struggling with defensive zone coverage. The Hurricanes survived and did manage to find a higher gear midway through the first period but exited the first period with a 1-0 deficit.
Again, the Blues struck early in the second period when an inopportune Justin Faulk push up in the neutral zone led to a 2-on-1 behind him, and Klas Dahlbeck just kept backing up such that the Blues passed across twice in front of him making it nearly impossible for Scott Darling to make a save on a good shot after having to shift quickly between three different shooting angles. At that point, it seemed reasonable to think that it just was not going to be the Hurricanes’ night. But the hockey gods offered a break to get the Canes back into it. After nearly a minute of penalty kill time with Darling playing without a stick but with no shots on net, a shot just as the penalty was expiring caromed perfectly up the ice to Derek Ryan who was exiting the penalty box. Ryan scored his second huge goal in as many games to get the Hurricanes back into the game at 2-1. When Lucas Wallmark scored 13:48 into the second period, the Hurricanes had climbed back into the game at 2-2 which is how the second period ended.
Heading into third period at 2-2 after playing ‘meh’ hockey through two periods and catching a couple breaks, one had to like the Hurricanes chances to steal a win or at least grab a point. But it was not to be, and the streak ended. The third and deciding goal found Klas Dahlbeck and Justin Faulk being victimized again when the puck found its way behind Dahlbeck and Faulk failed to take away the pass on a 2-on-1. A moving Scott Darling opened up the late-game five hole issues for Darling that have been an Achilles’ heel for him throughout the season.
Notes/recap for the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues
1) Scott Darling
His three goals against were not abysmal, but I would not call the night a positive overall for Darling. He seemed to doing his best to just fight off pucks all night without much for rebound control on numerous occasions. As such, he looked good on some reflex saves but also just looked shaky again. And the third goal was again the kind he would like back. Off the rush, a good shot into either corner is going to be tough to stop, but Darling needs to make the shooter beat him with some precision on that play, not get beat through him. My attentive viewing of Darling is limited to his time with the Hurricanes, but I hope to check to see if the five hole and other shots through him were ever an issue in Chicago or if perhaps it is just a symptom of his current struggles. In my view, he looks very much like an AHL goalie who is still trying to make an adjustment up to NHL speed such that he more quickly closes up holes when moving and/or challenging shooters. Regardless, the league’s scouts have a very clear read on the situation. Teams are increasingly getting shots off quickly and aiming low. Right now, a high percentage of those shots are becoming reaction saves with big rebounds, and a reasonably high percentage are even finding holes for goals.
As good as the Dahlbeck/Faulk pairing has been recently, they had a rough night on Saturday. They were on the ice and played a part in all three St. Louis goals. The first saw Dahlbeck have a pass get through him into the slot. The second goal saw Faulk have the puck get behind him at the offensive blue line and Dahlbeck do nothing but keep backing up while the Blues made two easy passes and then scored. The final goal was nearly the reverse with Dahlbeck getting caught up ice and Faulk failing to take away the pass on a 2-on-1. Again, the duo has been good in recent games, so hopefully this was just an off night possibly due to the back-to-back set.
3) Derek Ryan
On a more positive note, for the second consecutive game Derek Ryan scored a huge goal to get the Hurricanes back into it. Ryan continues to look capable even if not flashy offensively.
4) Lucas Wallmark
In his 2017-18 debut, Wallmark netted his first NHL goal and a big one at that. About midway through the game, he was paired with Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho. Wallmark’s game is intriguing with skill on his wing. Wallmark’s general tendency is to hang round in the slot and wait for the puck to show up which combined with his decent finishing ability is a recipe for goal scoring if his wings can handle and pass the puck. For his goal, Aho found a streaking Noah Hanifin who then fed Wallmark for the finish.
I am on record as wanting to see Wallmark get an opportunity to boost scoring for the fourth line. After seeing a decent amount of him in preseason and also one regular season game in 2017-18 now, my assessment of Wallmark is as follows:
–His finishing and offensive upside continues to be intriguing. He showed at the AHL level last year that he can score goals. His natural habit of going to the slot and staying there combined with good sense for how/where to create passing lanes has goal scoring potential with playmaking line mates. But the question is whether as a fourth line center (looking specifically at the here and now in 2017-18), he will get enough help in that regard to capitalize on his scoring ability.
–He very much reminds me a Victor Rask. Wallmark’s game is mature in terms of decision-making and positioning. As with Rask, that enables Wallmark to be decent defensively despite being below average for raw speed and more importantly acceleration. But the challenge with this formula for being sound defensively is that the margin for error is so small today’s NHL where the game is played so fast especially at transition points.
–When I net it out, the upside for Wallmark is that he seems to have the smarts to be like Victor Rask in terms of being a sound two-way player, but there is potential that Wallmark’s upside especially in terms of goal scoring is higher than Rask’s. The big difference is that Rask is proven over an extended time period as a capable two-way player who will not kill you defensively whereas Wallmark seems to have the tool set but has yet to demonstrate that he can translate it to NHL speed without the occasional ‘oops’ that often plagues young centers.
5) Bounce back is critical
Despite playing well, the Hurricanes obviously were obviously not going to win out. The key is keeping losing streaks short such that the Hurricanes push right up to the edge of the playoff cut line does not quickly turn into one step forward followed by one step back. The Hurricanes face another tough stretch of schedule primarily against teams that have been near the top of the league in 2017-18 or otherwise very recently, so cutting losing streaks short becomes even more important.
Next up for the Hurricanes is the first game of 2018 on Tuesday at home against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals.