Shortly after the conclusion of the Hurricanes’ 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Sunday, I tweeted the following:
As much as anything, I think Sunday's @NHLCanes loss is tremendous illustration of why it's so important to win games like Friday's that are in hand. Sometimes it's just not your day (Sunday), but when you also lose on days that are/could be (Friday), it snowballs quickly.
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) January 14, 2018
A typical NHL game has any number of completely random events that can and often do dictate outcomes. That is why even good teams lose by four or more goals fairly regularly. That is why the best teams are lucky to collect 20 more points than break even over an 82-game season. And it is why on any given night any team can beat any other time. Because of the randomness ranging from hot goalies to bouncing pucks to referees to odd deflections, some days the bounces just do not go the right way especially against good teams who also make legitimately non-lucky plays too. I think Sunday was very much one of those days for the Canes who did play at their highest level but were not bad and could benefited from a break or two. And I think Friday was the reverse with the Hurricanes finding their way to having the game in hand late. Friday’s ‘one that got away’ combined with Sunday’s ‘tough sledding’ how how important it is to capitalize when the opportunity is there.
As for the game itself…
Random yammering aside, the game maybe went as one might reasonably expect. The Hurricanes have been a bit undermanned due to injuries and the flu and have dished out extra minutes to key players in each of the last two games to try to get by. As such, the fact that the Hurricanes looked a bit sluggish and out of gas early should not have been a surprise.
Decent stretches of the first period saw the ice tilted into the Hurricanes end and a wildly different experience in the neutral zone. Whereas the Hurricanes were slow and sluggish trying to get started moving the puck forward out of their own end, Calgary played fast through the middle of the ice and regularly put pressure on the Hurricanes defensemen to defend speed, skill and numbers off the rush. And sure enough, the Flames ultimately found a couple chinks in the Canes’ armor that was minus Brett Pesce.
Calgary struck first on a domino effect of heavy-legged errors. First, Justin Faulk turned the puck over at the the offensive blue line. Then Faulk had Flames forward Lazar blow right around him at the other end. Next Jaccob Slavin (who took a tripping penalty) and then Lee Stempniak also fell by the wayside one at a time trying to defend Lazar. The result was a mess of three Canes players left in the wake while Matt Stajan joined in a second wave for a point blank chance and goal. The second goal also came when the Canes lost the puck in the neutral zone and then struggled to defend speed and waves off the rush. Ferlund separated Aho from the puck. The Canes forwards were slow to identify assignments in the second wave (Staal was closest) defenseman Dougie Hamilton was able to step into a shot and finish.
To the Hurricanes credit, the team did gets its feet under them, did not quit and actually pushed back strongly in the second period. The Hurricanes could easily have had any number of goals in the second period. The hockey gods made their final emphatic statement that it just was not happening today in the second half of the second period. In consecutive sequences the Hurricanes mounted furious frenzies around the crease, fired a shot off of Smith’s goalie mask and seemed to be on the brink of a goal for 30 seconds each time. But it just was not to be. The Hurricanes mustered 16 shots with more quality than the first period but only broke even at 0-0 and exited the period down 2-0.
The third period saw things go from bad to worse. With his head down a bit coming across the middle of the offensive zone, Sebastian Aho nearly got decapitated by Mark Giordano on a high hit that sent Aho sliding across the ice as Justin Williams stepped up to challenge Giordano. Pick your poison between the potential concussion risk from the hit to the chin, the potential for a jaw/facial injury based on Aho clearly being in pain or the fact that Aho was not putting any weight on one leg while leaving the nice after also maybe being hit knee-to-knee. The biggest news over the break will be status of Sebastian Aho when action returns.
A quick turnaround saw the Hurricanes go from seemingly being back to within 2-1 on a Brock McGinn shot that instead hit the post to down 3-0 when Dougie Hamilton scored his second of the night at the other end. The Hurricanes saw the power play which has generally been pretty good of late unable to score a key goal to get the team back into the game (though Lee Stempniak did notch a ‘too little too late’ power play goal with less than five minutes left.
Aside from seeming to end up on the wrong side of every bounce, the story of the game for me was the neutral zone. The Flames pretty regularly were able to use the middle of the ice as a launching pad to enter the offensive zone, attack and create scoring chances with speed. The Hurricanes on the other hand struggled with a Flames defense that mixed up forechecking with simply sitting five players in between the blue lines. The Hurricanes never really did find an answer for how to attack and instead mostly just played sluggish sideways hockey trying to navigate their way slowly forward.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames
1) Heads up Sebastian Aho
I think Sebastian Aho is very much at the stage Jeff Skinner was about also about one full season into his career. Aho, like Skinner, has established himself as a dynamic offensive player whose ability includes creative play that is not always a straight line at the net. Also like Skinner, Aho would qualify as undersized by today’s NHL standards. So very much like Skinner, we are seeing an increasing amount of teams trying to see if they can knock Aho off of his game just like they did to Skinner. To Aho’s credit, thus far he has struck a very good balance between retaliating inside of the whistles and just continuing to play undeterred. In so doing, I think Aho is a step ahead of where Skinner was maturity-wise at a similar age. That is positive, but it does not change the fact that the game is more dangerous for Aho now than it was when he was mostly a promising rookie who had yet to prove himself worthy of extra, negative attention. For Aho, it is not about defending himself in the sense that he needs to fight. But he does need to be careful when he starts playing laterally in the neutral and offensive zones such that he does not put himself in dangerous positions more than necessary. I also think there is a responsibility for his teammates to step up when someone crosses the line. In general, I think that has happened. Williams is not the ideal player to jump on Giordano after the play, but credit to him such that at least someone did. Faulk also took a run at Tom Wilson from the Capitals on Friday after Wilson similarly tried to run Aho from a distance. As a heady player with good instincts who mostly plays the game with awareness and his head up, Aho is equipped to handle this next phase as well as anyone who plays a physical sport like NHL hockey. But he does also need to make sure that as he becomes increasingly comfortable at the NHL level that he does not let up on his diligence to make sure he knows what he is skating into versus trusting/hoping for openings.
People make too much of Skinner’s size leading to his concussion issues earlier in his career. Even as an 18-year old, Skinner had a strong lower body and enough weight. His issues were twofold. First, as a player who is only 5 feet 10 inches tall, his head and chin are at shoulder height for bigger NHL players, especially if he reaches down for a puck. Second and more significantly, as Skinner became comfortable at the NHL level, he too regularly fished for pucks with his head down and/or made blind spins/turns that had some chance of having a shoulder waiting for him.
2) Brock McGinn
He was the team’s best player in my opinion. On a night when the team looked intermittently sluggish, McGinn again proved to be a Nathan Gerbe-like model of consistency in terms of pace, intensity and every-shift engagement. He had a good scoring chance early on a shot and also was in the vicinity of a goal hanging out near the crease on two occasions. His third post in the past couple weeks could have turned the game early in the third but just missed. But in total, McGinn had another strong night.
3) Lee Stempniak
He was more noticeable on Friday (partly just because I was watching him more closely in his first game back), but Lee Stempniak has hit the ground running after his half season layoff. He was somewhat quieter on Sunday but did net a late goal to give him two points in two games. Here is hoping that he continues on his current path and provides a fresh boost to the offense in the second half of the season.
4) Jaccob Slavin
In the first game minus usual partner Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin put forward a stellar ’empty the tank’ type of performance logging 27:26 of ice time in a non-overtime game in the Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Capitals on Thursday. The problem is that I think he did in fact empty the tank in the process. In the two games that followed in rapid succession in less than three days, Slavin has not been as impressive. He has been on the ice for six goals against in the two games since, has been right in the middle of a few tough plays and just has not played at quitethe same level. Especially on Sunday when the challenge was a big one of defending against the rush for the first half of the game, I think Slavin missed Pesce, but my hunch is that he was also just a step slow due to physical reasons. He should benefit from a few days off and return at a higher level next weekend.
5) Scott Darling
Because of the team’s recent struggles in net and the importance of the position, it is hard not to make Darling one of the pregame watch points or post-game analysis, but I really did not have him as a top story either way on Sunday. Four goals against is very rarely great, but I felt like Sunday was mostly an accurate reflection of what was happening in front of him. So I would not consider Sunday a continuation of the significantly higher gear he found in Thursday’s win, but I would not necessarily call Sunday a step backwards either.
6) Regular issues for F4 helping defend the rush
A regular problem on many of the Hurricanes’ tougher nights has been intermittent issues with the fourth forward back defending on the rush. Too often recently, the Hurricanes are giving up grade A scoring chances that see a defenseman stepping into a wide open hole with all of the time in the world to skate into and label a shot off the rush. Skinner has had a bit of a relapse in this regard. Aho also has regular issues when the defenseman that he needs to find is not where he expects him to be coming down the ice behind him (instead jumping up or picking another lane). And Jordan Staal has even been victimized a couple times. Shorter version is that the Hurricanes forwards as a group need to be better sorting things out off the rush, as I think the tape is officially out there showing the team’s lackadaisical defense behind the play creating openings for defensemen who pick the right place to join as a fourth.
7) Results matter
After a huge win that pushed the Hurricanes back into the last playoff spot on Tuesday, the Hurricanes painfully went 0 for 4 in two home games leading up to the bye week. The team will enter the bye week out of a playoff spot (even if adjusted for games played), trending (modestly at two games) in the wrong direction and suddenly a point behind their 2016-17 pace which was not good enough.
The good news is that the Hurricanes are still in the hunt, but they do need to find a higher gear still to find a different result for the 2017-18 season.
Next up is what I think will be well-timed break before restarting next Saturday in Detroit.