Perspective is important when considering the Hurricanes legitimately disappointing 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils. The Hurricanes were not going to win out, and that is not necessary to make the playoffs. And the Hurricanes were going to have a couple stinker games which was the case on Thursday.
They key is to rebound quickly. If Thursday’s loss compounds like the deflating loss to the Red Wings earlier in the month and quickly turns into a three-game losing streak by the end of the weekend, it will be damaging to playoff hopes especially since all three games are against teams also in the playoff chase. But on the flip side, if the Hurricanes rebound with a win over the Islanders on Friday and a revenge win against the Devils on Saturday, all will be right in the hockey world entering a five-day layoff next week.
As for the game, the story of the game was unfortunately a tough night for Scott Darling. Early in the, there were a mix of stories both positive and negative, but as the game wore on, Darling’s struggles trumped all else.
In odd scheduling that saw the first of four match ups between the two teams not happen until game #58, what stood out to me about the Devils was how aggressive they were on the forecheck. The Devils attacked with a level of aggressiveness that matched the best from the 2017-18 season. One of the things that will stand out when the Hurricanes video team dissects the game tonight/tomorrow morning is how often the Devils got all three forwards below the face-off dots on the forecheck when the Hurricanes were trying to move the puck off the wall behind the net. The Hurricanes struggled early to advance the puck, were regularly hemmed their own end and were sloppy finding/executing passes to get behind the initial wave of forecheckers and start moving north/south as a group. But the team mostly avoided the horrible variety of turnovers and did a decent job defending in their own end such that they gave up shots but also gave Darling a chance early despite being outplayed. The greatest chance again was actually a Darling puck-handling flub that he survived with a crazy (lucky?) stick save from out of the crease. At 15 minutes into the game the shots on goal were 8 to 2 in favor of New Jersey when the Hurricanes earned a power play that changed momentum. The first power play unit did not score but in playing in the offensive zone for their full minute and pumping two shots on net and three more than were blocked, they seemed to force a reset after a sluggish Canes start. Sure enough, the Canes struck first when Jeff Skinner went skate to stick and into the net from close range, and then the Hurricanes drew another penalty. But whatever momentum the Canes had built seemingly heading into the locker room with a lead was sapped when Darling was beaten off the rush with 19 seconds remaining in the period. But despite the late goal against, the Hurricanes had to be reasonably happy to get out of the first period tied 1-1 after being outplayed for three-fourths of it.
About seven minutes into the second period, Darling’s night started its transiton giving up one he might want back in the first period toward having a tough night. A shot from the side of the net hit Darling, but he was unable to control the rebound, was then unable to find it quick enough and then was unable to cover it with his glove as a Devils player came from away and tapped it in. But the Hurricanes answered almost immediately. Stepping out of his usual character, Brett Pesce went full dangling stick-handler mode and patiently held a puck while walking toward the net and then pulled it into his wheelhouse and sniped right through Victor Rask into the short side of the net. The pretty goal quickly put the Devils goal in the rear view mirror tying the game at 2-2. Late in the second period, a tipped center pass found Palmieri in front of the net who found another hold in Darling through the five hole. The Hurricanes actually found a higher gear in the second period but were snowed under by Darling’s struggles through two periods.
But despite the struggles, the Hurricanes entered the third period very much in the game down only 3-2. Before the period started, I said on Twitter:
Need to find a way in game like this. List of ways game went awry is already written, but it's a 1-goal game entering 3rd period. One good period could steal game & be HUGE 4-point swing. #Redvolution
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) February 16, 2018
The Hurricanes surged early and had a dominant first shift in the third period with a line change in the middle and nearly a goal from Derek Ryan at the end. But it just was not meant to be. Rookie Nico Hischier finished on a 2-on-1 when Haydn Fleury made a bad pinch, and only 32 seconds later a crazy deflection that went down and bounced up off the ice and over Darling’s shoulder put the final nail in the coffin. Darling had no chance on the final goal and was hung out to dry a bit on the fourth goal, but five goals against on only 22 shots against just does not grade well statistically or by the eye test for those who watched the game.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 5-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils
1) A big goal by Jeff Skinner
It was wiped away by the result, but at the point when Jeff Skinner scored to stake the Hurricanes to a 1-0 goal in the first period, it was a huge goal. The Hurricanes were being outplayed but had picked up some momentum from their power play despite not scoring. His goal converted that to a momentum shift that very nearly took the team into the first intermission in a good place.
2) Same for Brett Pesce
His pretty and heady goal was also a huge one. His goal that came less than a minute after the Devils took the lead quickly halted any Devils momentum and set the game up at an even 2-2 heading into the second half of the second period.
3) Scott Darling
It really was just a poor outing. There is no way to candy coat it. All of the first three goals were varying degrees of soft, and in a game where the shot volume and quality was low, this was definitely a game where at least 2-2 to get to overtime was possible. Meaningful context is that Darling is the backup right now and he is coming off a win. By no means does his regression to another low on Thursday inspire confidence, but if he can rebound and muster even inconsistent .500 hockey down the stretch, that should be good enough for his current backup role. With the volume of back-to-backs on the schedule ahead, the Hurricanes are going to need at least a few more starts out of him, so here is hoping he can just start fresh and find a good start for his next one.
4) The New Jersey forecheck
Having seen it only on video this year, the Hurricanes were overwhelmed early by the Devils’ forecheck. They are as aggressive as anyone the Hurricanes have seen thus far in 2017-18. The volume of times when they got the puck to the end wall and then had all three forwards at or inside of the face-off dots was high. If the Hurricanes can be crisper with quick passes to get going north-south, the potential for 3-on-2 rushes with speed through the middle of the rink seems to be there. With the Devils on the schedule in only three days, it will be interesting to see if the Hurricanes can make adjustments and exploit the Devils’ aggressiveness.
5) Still looking for more offense from the broader forward group
Thursday’s game pushes the goal-less stretch to at least 9 games (from beginning of the home stand) for key forwards Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Derek Ryan, Lee Stempniak and Joakim Nordstrom. Justin Williams, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and Phil Di Giuseppe are all still stuck on one for the same time period. It is not clear that it would have mattered on Thursday, but the day is coming when the team needs more contributors to push into the win column.
6) The response is critical
As noted above, the Hurricanes were not going to win out, and they were inevitably going to have a few clunkers in the final 25 games. They key is to rebound quickly. The Hurricanes most recent loss after a win streak led quickly to two more losses (one in overtime). With both the Islanders and Canes playing tonight and then traveling to play in Raleigh tomorrow, the chance is there for the Hurricanes to rebound quickly with an important Metropolitan Division win. By this time tomorrow, the Hurricanes will either be right back on track or plunging back toward the depths. That’ s how the #CanesCoaster works.
The puck drop for the attempted rebound is 7:37pm at PNC Arena against the New York Islanders on Friday night.