As I started off for the placeholder, I think “This one is much more than 2 points in the standings” (though those are important too).
On Thursday night in Pittsburgh, the Hurricanes rebounded from a brief two-game losing streak (that did include a decent overtime loss point against the division-leading Capitals), the team rebounded in brilliant fashion. By winning the Hurricanes, who currently sit in a playoff spot, extended their lead over the Penguins to three points importantly with two games in hand. And when the Islanders also lost, their gap became two points with the Hurricanes also having a game in hand against the Isles too.
Shorter version: The Hurricanes are in a playoff spot right now. Their lead becomes even more if you do any kind of adjustment for games played. And that is a very, very good thing.
Those who have been reading my writing for a couple years now at Canes and Coffee or possibly also the many years prior at HockeyBuzz should be able to vouch for the fact that I do not generally go overboard with hyperbole like “best of the ___”, “turning point”, and various other superlatives that make the most recent game out to be much more than it is. But I will venture out onto a limb and say that I think this game could prove to be different and much more than the two points when we look back on the Hurricanes transition from playoff miss to playoff team.
As the game was ending and Canes fans were filing out of the away arena (their living rooms) and into the proverbial streets (Twitter), I said the following on Twitter:
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) January 5, 2018
This one is more than 2 points. Has potential to be hallmark game in @NHLCanes transition.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) January 5, 2018
It starts with the first Tweet. This game had all the markings of a game that the failing Hurricanes of recent times have seemingly always lost. The team entered needing a win to cut a losing streak short and avoid giving up recent gains and just going back to treading water below the playoff cut line. The opponent was a good on in the Penguins and on the road to boot. And maybe most significantly, the game did not come easy out of the gate. Thought it was not by a huge margin, the Penguins were the better team in the first period.
But to me, the Hurricanes looked like a different team. When Pittsburgh was better early, the Hurricanes did not so much look flustered or overmatched. The Hurricanes were able to match the Penguins pace and intensity such that even if the Penguins had more jump and were better early, the gap in level of play was pretty small and the advantage that the Penguins gained from it was marginal. In fact, the Canes mostly forced the first period to a stalemate with only 13 total shots on goal, minimal grade A scoring chances and a 0-0 tie on the scoreboard. In years past, this felt very much like a game in which the Hurricanes would have dug an early 1-0 or 2-0 hole one way or another with a costly mistake or two or a soft goal.
Then the Hurricanes did some combination of making minor or adjustments or more so just dialing up their level of play. Calling any period the single best is usually an overstatement, but the Hurricanes’ level of play in the second period was easily one that would be considered if hunting for a handful of best efforts during the season. The forecheck that drove the bus offensively against the Capitals a couple days earlier arrived in full force and smothered the Penguins in their own end for chunks of the period. Even when the Penguins did advance the puck, the Hurricanes defense offered exactly nothing for gaps or room to operate. After quickly setting a tone early in the period and mostly just squeezing the life out of the Penguins for a few minutes, the Canes eventually broke through for a couple goals. First, keeping with the theme of forchecking and pressuring the puck, Jeff Skinner stripped Ian Cole of the puck at the offensive blue line and beat Matt Murray. Then Teuvo Teravainen finished a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play with an easy tap in after Slavin flew up the right side with the puck and fed it across to Aho streaking down the other side who then niftily fed Teravainen for the pretty goal. When the dust settled on the second period, the Hurricanes had outshot the Penguins 15-7, outscored them 2-0 and pretty clearly established that they were the better team through two periods on Thursday night.
But as is almost always the case, the team that enters the third period losing pushes back at some point and makes a push to get back into the game. The Penguins did push early in the third period and had a few decent chances in doing so. But just like the first period, the Hurricanes held their ground and did wither under the pressure like some Hurricanes teams in the past. As the Penguins started to mount their charge, I said:
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) January 5, 2018
And sure enough, Sebastian Aho did exactly that. The play was not really so much of an odd man rush. Jordan Staal made a nice play to hit Aho in stride heading into the offensive zone, but the defender in front of him was in pretty position to defend Aho 1-on-1. But Aho blew right by him, stickhandled across the front of the crease and beat goalie Matt Murray to boost the Hurricanes a 3-0 lead and sap some of the energy from Pittsburgh’s push. When Aho scored again on a deflection of a Teravainen shot, the score was 4-0, and the Penguins mostly whimpered away into the night.
I recognize that the Penguins are not firing on all cylinders right now, but the win was still an impressive one for the Hurricanes.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins
1) The forecheck fuels the offense
Unlike Thursday’s solid all-around effort in the win against the Penguins, Tuesday’s win against the Capitals was a sloppy one defensively. The Hurricanes were able to score four times and at least collect a point only because of the linked combination of the Capitals defensemen’s miscues and the strength of the Hurricanes forecheck. Thursday again featured the Canes dialing up the pressure in the second period and tilting the ice into the offensive zone.
The mounting strength across different lines of the Hurricanes forecheck right now is a powerful force in two regards. First, it makes it incredibly difficult for teams that have too many defensemen who are not great at handling the puck. Second, it is arguably the most proven recipe for finding offense and scoring depth on a nightly basis because it creates chances for various players and decreases the pressure for a small number of players to magically make things happen offensively.
2) Sebastian Aho
He is rapidly rising to the top of the list offensively for the Carolina Hurricanes. Not surprisingly, Canes and Coffee readers have him pegged as the player who will be the team’s most valuable player in the second half of the season in a Monday Coffee Shop poll (by a wide margin too). He is starting to develop the powerful combination of being able to at times take over games but also (somewhat like Alexander Ovechkin on Tuesday) be quiet for awhile but then quickly strike like a snake when given the smallest of openings. Thursday was more the former. His assist on the Teravainen goal off the rush was a heady playmaker’s type of assist. He received Slavin’s pass so deep and with speed that he had to have already known/calculated where he needed to feed the puck before he even received it. Sure enough, he had and put the puck on Teravainen’s tape for an easy goal. Aho’s first goal off the rush was simply a goal scorer’s individual effort. As noted above, the defender started right where he would want to be in defending Aho 1-on-1, but Aho was just better and flat beat him before finishing. Then Aho put the game out of reach with a nifty tip goal. All in all, Thursday was a PHENOMENAL night for Aho who led the way on a night when many Hurricanes played well.
Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had an odd game on Tuesday night. For the most part they defended well and quieted Alexander Ovechkin which is never easy to do. But in the end Ovechkin won the battle and the game. He scored to tie the game when Slavin picked a bad time and the wrong player to turn the puck over in his defensive zone. The puck found Ovechkin’s stick and about two seconds later, the net behind Ward. Slavin was also the defender in a tough spot defending Ovechkin 1-on-1 in overtime. With a ton of open ice and no defensive help for Slavin that you usually get 5-on-5, Ovechkin pushed pace such that Slavin just backed up to the point where Ovechkin could fire when, how and where he wanted off the rush and beat the goalie. Tuesday’s game was not a horrible one for Slavin (and to some degree Pesce), but it was a night when the player he was defending ultimately won. In another round of trying to defend elite scorers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Slavin and Pesce were perfect this time.
4) Cam Ward
I actually think this was an odd game for Cam Ward to earn his first shutout of the 2017-18 season. He deserves credit for being flawless especially through the first 26 minutes of the game when the score was tied at 0-0. But on a night when the Hurricanes were sounder defensively and just better than the opponent for at least the last two periods, Ward was an under card to a number of other things despite posting the shutout. Regardless, the game was a good one for him to also cut any negative streak short. I did not think Ward was horrible or among the big problems on Tuesday despite giving up five goals, but by the same token he could have been better. He was better on Thursday.
I will save the longer version for a Daily Cup of Joe article, but I really like the Rask/Williams combination and think it has the potential to become part of the next level of transformation at the forward position. Both players are sound in terms of decision-making and positioning which are key ingredients in making it hard for opponents to generate much for grade A scoring chances. With Kruger out, Peters has been quite often using them as the 1B line behind’s Staal’s 1A line in terms of matching up against scoring lines. McGinn (who had a post for the second consecutive game) is also a decent fit as a player who skates hard every shift and does all he can to be difficult to play against.
6) Noticeably better play by the forwards defensively
Defensive play tends to be primarily credited to the defensemen, but I thought the Hurricanes forwards looked dramatically different on Thursday as compared to Tuesday. Tuesday saw the Canes forwards a step slow and/or a little lackadaisical in terms of identifying assignments and quickly addressing them. Most notable was the Caps goal that saw Aho floating by himself while the Caps mustered a 2-on-1 in a small area and then all day to address and label a puck for the corner of the net. Thursday saw Jeff Skinner break up a pass to the front of the net that looked like a certain early when the score was still 0-0 and Teuvo Teravainen make a great play on a back check also possibly to save a goal. It was clear to me that the forwards spent some time reviewing video from Tuesday and likely being chewed out in the process, and they responded with a much more concerted effort to do their part defensively.
Next up for the Hurricanes is another tough opponent as part of the tough stretch of eight games leading into the team’s bye week. But now with a 1-1-1 record through three games, the stretch of schedule looks much less daunting.
That next tough game is against the Boston Bruins on Saturday night.