After a decent but imperfect three points out of four at home over the weekend, the Hurricanes had a single road game on Tuesday on Nashville before returning home Friday.
Against a Predators team that came in with three straight wins, the Canes posted one of their most complete games of the season on the way to a 4-1 win. The Hurricanes started strong which has been a rarity of late. The couple penalties that they took were defending scoring chances, and the penalty kill came through. The team was again led by the top line which was on fire, but balance which has been mostly missing was also there. When I look back through the schedule, the last game that I would consider comparing to this one was 3-0 win at home over Arizona on January 10.
If one wanted to pick a recent game to model the rest of the season after, Tuesday’s game would be it.
Recap of Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators
The game started with the Hurricanes dialing things up out of the gate. The Hurricanes had six of the first seven shots and struck first when a good effort by Jordan Staal’s line. First, Justin Williams helped win a 50/50 face-off. Then the group headed to the front of the net to make a mess. Finally, Williams retrieved the puck behind the net and fed Staal who finished. Momentum was slowed a bit when Sebastian Aho took a penalty, but even that was a contrast to recent struggles. As opposed to being an unnecessary penalty, Aho was battling to defend a Predator headed to the net. In total, the first period was a phenomenal one to watch. Both teams played fast and aggressive which made for up and down hockey with both teams competing hard. The Canes avoided bad break downs, but Petr Mrazek still had to be sharp a number of times to get the Canes out of the first period with the 1-0 lead.
Nashville tied the game early in the second when Ryan Johansen scored with another Predator in the crease. The Canes challenged on goalie interference but lost. The Predator was definitely in the crease which in itself is not automatically a penalty. I guess the question was whether he actually impeded Mrazek. Regardless, the Hurricanes just stuck with it and went on to have a strong second period. A 13 to 5 shot advantage and the upper hand in general led to two more goals. Andrei Svechnikov scored first on a power play snipe on Williams’ second assist from behind the net. And Nino Niederreiter picked up the loose change and scored after Martin Necas went power forward mode and carried the puck into the fray at the front of the net. He attracted the attention of three defenders and got the puck to a dangerous area for Niederreiter to finish. The period was even better than the first period which was pretty good.
With a 3-1 lead entering the third period, the Hurricanes did not really pause. Nashville did push and fire away at the net trying to get back into the game. But the Canes defended well and gave Mrazek a chance, and the only goal of the period came when Sebastian Aho willed himself a goal. First, he received a heady pass from Svechnikov coming over the blue line. He was stymied on the breakaway attempt, but the Canes retrieved the puck. Aho was stopped again on a rebound attempt but finally scored on a third attempt. The Canes mostly stayed out of trouble down the stretch to collect a 4-1 win without the need for any late heroics.
Player and other notes
1) Justin Williams
His shootout heroics were the stuff of story books, but in terms of actual game play he has still been trying to get up to speed. That was to be expected trying to play up to speed in January when everyone else is in mid-season form. Be it based on hunch he was ready or just trying to shake things up a bit, but Williams had by far his best game of the season. He had two heady assists but equally significantly was on pucks or players all night such that he was engaged at a greater level than any of the previous games.
2) Martin Necas
He too had a great all-around game. His assist on the Niederreiter goal was a unique one for him. Necas is generally at his best using his wheels to create time, space and passing lanes. But on Niederreiter’s goal, he simply used a quick first step to find a lane toward then net. He then went Erik Cole mode just driving the puck to the net. The result was Necas attracting a bunch of attention, creating general chaos and leaving the puck for Niederreiter to bang into a half-empty net. He also had at least two if not three strong plays helping defend in the defensive zone and was a part of the Canes being much better in that regard on Tuesday.
3) Petr Mrazek
It helped that the team offered a manageable game which has been rare of late, but Mrazek was also very sharp on Tuesday. Even with the Canes being better defensively, Nashville mustered some pretty good chances. The first period was pretty even after the Canes fast start. Mrazek deserves credit for converting that to a 1-0 lead after the first period. He was sound throughout the rest of the game as well.
4) Attention to detail
From a number of positives to choose from, what stood out to me most was how much better the Canes were in terms of attention to detail. The couple penalties the Canes took were actually defending scoring chances. Gone were unnecessary offensive zone penalties. In terms of puck management especially inside the defensive zone, the Hurricanes at least avoided costly mistakes even when pressured. And as noted in what I said about Necas, the team was better marking players on defense. Defensively, this game becomes the target model for the games that follow.
And ranking just behind the defensive improvement, the much better balance was another huge positive. Aho’s line has been clicking lately, but the rest of the lineup has struggled to produce much or even generate chances. On Tuesday, Staal with Williams and Foegele created good chances multiple times after the first period goal. And Haula’s line with Necas and Niederreiter scored and had a couple other chances. The game was the most balanced effort since Brind’Amour put together Aho, Svechnikov and Teravainen.
6) Haydn Fleury
The only negative in the game was Fleury catching his skate in the ice funny after being checked and leaving the game. A report on that injury the next check point for the team.
Next up is a couple days off at home before the first of a run of weekend back-to-backs with the next game at home on Friday