On Tuesday night, the Hurricanes kicked off a critical five-game road trip against the Pittsburgh Penguins. With the Penguins being the only opponent currently in playoff position on the trip, a win would be a great start. With a solid 4-0 win, the Hurricanes now have that great start.
The first period was even early on. The pace was high but least in the early going the high-quality scoring chances were minimal. But as the first period wore on the issues with defensive coverage behind the forecheck that plagued the Canes intermittently against the Flames re-emerged. The Penguins shot total in the first period was not high, but it featured a break away, two players in alone when they walked to the front of the net from the side wall and another found a point blank chance when the Canes defense lost track of him in the slot. The difference through 19 minutes was Curtis McElhinney who looked sharp in his first game back from injury. Coupled with a nice snipe by Jordan Martinook off the rush that went off the far side bar and in staked the Canes to a 1-0 lead at the end of the first period. The goal by Martinook was one of those HUGE goals late in the period that shifts momentum and turns the game.
From the outset of the second period, the Hurricanes dialed up the forecheck and gave Pittsburgh fits trying to advance the puck from their own end. The odd mix of not having to defend much because of the forecheck but not being great keeping the puck away from the front of the net when they did continued. But McElhinney continued to be flawless when needed, and Brett Pesce scored on a shot through a Nino Niederreiter screen to put the Hurricanes up 2-0 after two periods.
Despite the scoring in the first two periods, the third was the Hurricanes best. The forecheck continued a strong night, and the Canes were fast to the puck or to take away time and space consistently throughout the period. The result was that even when the Penguins tried to push to get back into the game, the best they could muster was trying to whack the puck toward the crease. Despite playing desperate hockey, the Penguins managed only five shots on goal for the third period. The Hurricanes added an empty-netter by Micheal Ferland and a late goal with the goalie back by Andrei Svechnikov to stretch a fairly tight 2-0 lead to a 4-0 win.
I will be eager to see if the Hurricanes can carry forward the third period that saw the best of both worlds in aggressive play on the puck on the forecheck but also sounder defense behind it.
Player and other notes
1) Curtis McElhinney
After multiple weeks out of the lineup, McElhinney played like he was in the same good rhythm as earlier in the season and made what I would consider a ‘meh’ night defensively virtually unnoticeable as he erased scoring chance after scoring chance. With the stakes high and a busy schedule, his return is well-timed for an important stretch of schedule.
2) Sebastian Aho
He had a quiet game offensively, but what stood out was his ability to spend the night matched up against Sidney Crosby without looking to be in over his head on the defensive side of the puck. When Aho moved to center to start the season after a brief audition there at the tail end of the 2017-18 season, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic that he would figure things out fairly quickly offensively. But the learning curve defensively figured to take more time. Aho has had occasional issues defensively mostly in the realm of floating a bit and watching the puck instead of finding and marking an assignment, but in total his starting point was probably better than expected, and his trajectory is good. Tuesday’s game was a testament to that progress.
3) The forecheck
As noted in the recap, the Hurricanes actually had more issues than the results would suggest in terms of defending in their own end. Fortunately, the forecheck was strong especially in the second period and minimized the volume of time the Canes had to defend in their own end, and McElhinney had answers when they did.
4) Jaccob Slavin
There is no way to measure or rate it, but if I had to wager a biased guess, I would say that Slavin would easily be among the top 5-6 defensemen in the entire league in terms of quickness defending in 15-20 foot spaces where a couple quick strides are the difference. He uses that ability to step up and interrupt the puck defending the blue line and uses it every which way to aggressively attack the puck against even the shiftiest forwards. If there was a statistic for “interrupting the puck” Slavin would have had a huge night on Tuesday in that regard.
5) FINALLY respecting the curse!
Some time ago I went a bit conspiracy theory in sharing information about a potential curse on the Hurricanes goalies by former Canes netminder Arturs Irbe. I have long believed that it would take a goalie or two and Irbe-like, bucket style Joffa goalie helmet at least in practice. But more subtly but unmistakably, McElhinney may have accidentally thrown a nod to the curse by returning from injury with a plain white set of pads reminiscent of Irbe in the early 2000s. Only time will tell if that is enough to satisfy whatever ethereal hockey spirit is currently responsible for the curse.
Next up for the Hurricanes is a Thursday match up against the Buffalo Sabres. A win in that game will see the Hurricanes move into ninth place in the Eastern Conference and just one spot below a playoff slot.