Coming off a horrible 7-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, the Hurricanes schedule offered very little for reprieve with a road match up against the NHL’s best team up next.
First and foremost, the Hurricanes needed to rebound, at least show a pulse in the first period and push upward from there. They did do that. The game was not the cleanest or best by any stretch of the imagination, but the pace and compete level were there. And the Hurricanes also showed resiliency pushing late despite being down two goals. Along the way, the Hurricanes traded punches with the best team in the league, came fairly close but ultimately fell by a 5-4 count to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night in Florida.
The Hurricanes struck first courtesy of a revamped power play that included Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brock McGinn who have not been regulars on the power play. A pretty pass to the front of the net by Justin Williams found McGinn in front who showed great hands quickly shoveling the puck into the net before Andrei Vasilevskiy could get across. Following a theme that would be repeated regularly, the Lightning struck next when they attacked off the rush by changing lanes and coming in layers with a defenseman joining. Inside of the team it took the Hurricanes to start trying to sort out responsibilities, Victor Hedman received a pass and stepped into a shot off the rush. The shot tipped off Ward’s glove and beat Ward short side. But responding and counter-punching as they would do all night, the Hurricanes struck next when Williams and Rask battled for a puck on the boards ultimately having it kick out to Sebastian Aho who picked up headed toward the net and then beat Vasilevskiy. The scoring for a fun first period concluded when Tyler Johnson found his way behind Jaccob Slavin and Trevor van Riemsdyk and tipped a point shot past Ward. The first period featured quite a bit of full on fire wagon hockey with rushes and chances both ways and four goals for a 2-2 tie to boot.
The second period added more of the same. The Hurricanes attacked at times, but also continued to have issues sorting things out defensively against a Lightning team that attacks off the rush as well as anyone in the NHL right now. Johnson scored his second scrambling in front of the crease when he finished on a second rebound after an initial shot from the point went off the post. Ward made a scrambling save on the first rebound but was sliding away from the net on the second rebound attempt that occurred when Jordan Staal floated by him without getting a piece of the puck or of Johnson. But again, the Hurricanes would respond when Faulk fired through traffic and a great Elias Lindholm screen to tied the game at 3-3.
The Lightning climbed to a 4-3 lead on a goal by defenseman Jake Dotchin that looked very similar to Hedman’s goal in the first period. Coming in a second wave behind the forwards on the rush, Dotchin received a pass and was able to step into a shot that deflected off Derek Ryan’s shoulder and past Ward. The Lightning would then seemingly put the game out of reach when undersized Tyler Johnson won a physical battle against Noah Hanifin and then beat Ward who reacted slowly and passively sitting deep in net giving Johnson room and time to make a play after beating Hanifin. But true to form on the night, the Hurricanes responded with their second power play goal of the game. For the second time in the game, the combination of a Faulk shot and a Lindholm screen beat Vasilevskiy this time when Lindholm tipped the shot home. The Hurricanes would push in the waning moments and get some shots to the net but ultimately come up short in a 5-4 loss.
Despite the result, there was a lot to like about the Hurricanes’ effort. The team’s compete level and resiliency are to be commended. The Lightning could well be the best team in the league in a game that trades rushes and chances and in the end they were just a bit better at it than the Hurricanes.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) A model for offense in today’s NHL
The Lightning are probably the best team in the entire league at creating offense by attacking in transition before a defense can sort out responsibilities, and I think they are significantly ahead of the pack. What they do better than any other team in the league is attack off the rush in a way that puts maximum pressure on the opponent to make a series of correct decisions in terms of sorting out responsibilities with a constantly changing situation. The forwards and first in on the rush regularly weave and change lanes forcing the opposing defensemen to make quick decisions on hand-offs and new responsibilities. Then they attack in layers such that there is always one if not two players coming behind the initial group that crosses the blue line. The result is that the opponent usually has to make 3-5 very quick decisions on who defends who. If you miss an assignment or even if you just hesitate enough while figuring it out, a scoring chance immediately results. The Hedman and Dotchin goals both came from passes the the second layer at the same time that the first rush had players moving laterally. A number of other in alone or partial breakaway chances resulted off the rush from players changing direction or lanes. Whereas most teams tend to play predictable hockey in straight lines off the rush, the Lightning are the opposite, and it makes it puts a ton of pressure on the opponent in terms of everyone making a correct decision on his assignment. Then add the fact that the Lightning have some of the league’s elite finishers and playing fire wagon hockey with them is going to end badly for the other team nearly every night just like it did for the Hurricanes on Tuesday.
I continue to like both players’ game together. I thought Rask especially had a strong night and was one of the Hurricanes best players despite not getting on the score sheet. He won pucks in the offensive zone and despite being a step slower than the pack in a game like this played a strong game in the neutral zone taking away angles and transition passes such that the Lightning could not so easily sprint from the defensive zone to the offensive blue line. Earlier this week, I wrote about this duo and its potential to usher in the last phase of the Hurricanes’ transition at forward.
The flip side of Rask/Williams being capable defensively in a game like this was Skinner/Ryan. Skinner and Ryan were both the forward who either missed an assignment or was a step slow defending on Tampa Bay goals. On the road, it is much harder for Peters to use this line opportunistically for offense against favorable match ups, and it showed on Tuesday.
4) Tyler Johnson 1v1 against bigger players
Johnson was the game’s best player and offensive hero. The undersized forward scored two of his three goals by outworking bigger players. On his first goal, Jordan Staal inexplicably floated by him at the side of the net fishing for the puck (and missing) instead of playing straight through the smaller Johnson. When Staal missed with his swipe at the puck, he had taken himself out of the play and left Johnson to finish. His third goal saw him second in a race for a puck with strong-skating Hanifin in front of him. Hanifin created an opening when he spent his lead trying to figure out what Johnson was up to instead of just going to the puck. With that opening, Johnson simultaneously got an inside step toward the net and wrestled the bigger Hanifin to the ground before beating Ward. Johnson’s play is a reminder that scoring around the net in today’s NHL is very little about size and much more about desire.
5) Cam Ward
His game was a mixed bag that leans slightly negative because of the five goals he allowed. He had little chance on the Johnson tip and also on the Dotchin shot that deflected off Ryan’s shoulder and in. He also faced a large number of high-quality chances in a game that was wide open at times and saw the Hurricanes defense being beaten at times by a skilled and attacking offense. But to win in the NHL, it is not good enough to just stop the routine saves, so if I am rating Ward on Tuesday, I give him a 4.5 — negative but not horrible.
Worth watching are two things right now. First is the current trend which is not positive. Sandwiched around the shutout win in Pittsburgh, Ward is 0-2-1 in his other three most recent games with 12 goals allowed on only 62 shots. The seasons are quite different in that last season Ward was overworked whereas this season he should be fresh after playing much of the season as a backup, but calendar-wise this is almost exactly when the wheels came off last season. Second is Ward’s approach to the game. When he is rolling, he tends to take things in stride and not get too high after wins while also shaking off goals and just playing the next shot. He was visibly irritated after the first and last Johnson goal (both of which he legitimately should have had more help) which can be a sign that Ward is starting to press mentally and is beginning to try to hard. That inflection point very likely coincides with a dip in Ward’s play that can snowball.
6) The bigger picture
The Hurricanes are now five games deep in a challenging 8-game stretch that includes five games against top 5-ish teams (Washington 3X, Boston, Tampa Bay). I said before it started that treading water at 4-4 (or eight points) would be acceptable. With Tuesday’s loss that looks more challenging with the team now needing to go 2-0-1 in the final three games to make that mark. But regardless of how the week ends up, the Hurricanes are basically tied for the final playoff spot with the Flyers right now if one adjusts for games played.
7) Brock McGinn
It was nice to see McGinn get rewarded with a goal. He has been quiet on the score sheet of late but probably deserves better. His game has not really dipped, and his numbers would look much better if his two recent posts had instead found the net.
Next up for the Hurricanes is the grand finale of the gauntlet run with a home and away set with the Washington Capitals on Thursday in Washington, D.C. and on Friday in Raleigh.