Had you told me at the beginning of the weekend that the Hurricanes could take a split or take their chances aiming for better, I would have taken the split that the Hurricanes ultimately achieved.
To be clear, the Hurricanes do need to find a significantly higher gear at some point fairly soon before it is too late, but bye week returns are nothing to be messed with, hopping straight into a back-to-back was also tough and the Vegas Golden Knights are the best team in the NHL so far.
A treading water 1-1 split is by no means great, but I continue to think that the goal for the run of four games coming out of the bye week is to stay in position such that the run of 11 home games out of 12 starting on January 30 has the potential to decide the season. Despite the fact that today’s loss could see the Canes lose ground on of the last two playoff teams (Flyers won earlier; Rangers play later), I think 1-1 does that reasonably well.
If the Hurricanes win against the Penguins on Tuesday, all will be okay coming out of the bye week.
The game itself
Unfortunately, my game preview was right on target in a bad way. I had “goaltending” as my top watch item and “the physical response in game two after the break” second. Both of those factors featured heavily in the negative outcome.
The game was another for which is is really hard to even evaluate the bigger picture because of the early and deciding deficit in net. Scott Darling was beaten on three of the first eight shots he faced which staked the Golden Knights to a big 3-0 lead and set the course for the game.
The first goal against was all too familiar. Off the rush, Joakim Nordstrom and Trevor van Riemsdyk both went to the same player. When the next two Hurricanes (Noah Hanifin and Marcus Kruger) were a bit slow returning such that a 1-on-2 quickly turned into a 2-on-2 and then suddenly a 1-on-0. No doubt, the Hurricanes defense hung Scott Darling out to dry, but on that play he needs to challenge the shot, stay square to the shooter, close up holes and make the shooter beat him into a corner. Instead, I think this goal follows that book that is out on Darling which is to consider shooting a bit early and aiming five hole. Darling has regularly been beaten this year on shots that find holes when the shooter shoots a bit early before Darling is set. If the shooter beats him into a corner, you hand this one on the defense. When it goes through Darling, he needs to be better too.
The second goal was a power play deflection off of Jordan Staal that really gave Darling no chance. And when Darling was then beaten short side off the rush, his night became a short one with three goals allowed on only eight shots.
The game was a bit like the recent loss to the Bruins in that the goalie generated an early and sizable deficit such that it was hard to even measure the Hurricanes’ level of play.
In the first period, the Hurricanes’ power play continued its stronger play of late. An early power play mustered 3-4 good scoring chances from a bunch of offensive zone time even though it did not score. And a late power play saw a pretty feed from behind the net by Jeff Skinner find Jaccob Slavin for a quick goal. At the time, the goal was a huge one pulling the Hurricanes to within two goals at 3-1 heading into the locker room after the first period.
But at a basic level, I really think it was not to be on Sunday night. The Hurricanes seemed to fade early and generate very little for good scoring chances as the game wore on, and the Golden Knights kept opportunistically attacking offensively in transition. Two more goals on Cam Ward resulted in a lopsided 5-1 loss.
Notes on the Carolina Hurricanes 5-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights
I continue to believe that there is no path to the playoffs without improved netminding during the stretch run. After winning on Saturday and faring somewhat better than Darling on Sunday, I think the job is again Ward’s to lose. Here is hoping that the short break helped him recharge such that he can continue to carry the load until Darling finds his game.
2) Elias Lindholm
After two goals in Saturday’s big win, Lindholm followed up with a noticeable effort on Sunday. I would not say that he was great, but he was a difference-maker via physical play finishing a hard check on the wall late in the first period and then sticking around to jaw about it and ultimately pick up a power play when the player he hit retaliated. There was an agitating and snarly component to Lindholm’s game during his best play in 2016-17. Though Lindholm has been decent thus far in 2017-18, my belief is that he has a higher gear that comes at least partly from playing closer to the edge physicall.
3) Tough night for the defense
Vegas ranks right up there with the Tampa Bay Lightning in terms of creating turnovers of going from defense to offense so quickly that the opponent is unable to defend the rush that follows. The majority of the blue line looked a step slow all night. Trevor van Riemsdyk who has been incredibly consistent had a tough night defending off the rush being part of the first goal against, having a Golden Knight forward blow right around him to the front of the net on another play and being caught in the middle of a few other plays that saw the Golden Knights attacking the net freely. After a strong two-game debut earlier in the season, Roland McKeown had a ‘meh’ game. He was beaten to the front of the net for a tap in goal against, had trouble with Dahlbeck moving the puck up the ice and had trouble (like the rest of the defense) defending Vegas in transition. And Justin Faulk picked up two minor penalties and was caught on the wrong side of the puck multiple times. In the name of not just generalizing the whole group, Hanifin and Slavin seemed to have more hop and were therefore better able to compete in a fast game.
After a generally solid effort in Saturday’s win, I will optimistically hope that Sunday’s struggles were just a matter of playing an elite team on a night when the legs just were not there.
4) Lack of cohesion moving the puck
The Hurricanes mostly looked out of sorts trying to advance the puck from their own end to the offensive zone. Even when they did not turn the puck over, the pace was sluggish and the offense generated entering the offensive zone was virtually non-existent.
5) The loss increases the importance of Tuesday’s game
I started by saying that the 1-1 split for the tricky back-to-back return from the bye week was acceptable even if not great. And yes, I realize that some will accuse of wearing rose-colored glasses. But if the Hurricanes can recharge and rebound to win a big divisional game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, all, or at least most, will be right in the world again. With a loss, the Hurricanes will again be sinking even if only gradually.
Next up is a 7pm start in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.