An important starting point to set the stage is to recognize that Tuesday’s game saw the Hurricanes face arguably teh best team in the NHL right now. The Lightning are now 8-1-1, are fresh off a 7-1 annihilation of the defending champion Penguins and are mostly having their way with everyone they face.
Disclaimer for competition officially noted, the Hurricanes game on Tuesday night did leave a lot to be desired including a win. The 5-1 headline score for the newspapers tomorrow is completely misleading given that it included two empty net goals and another garbage goal with four seconds left. But not misleading is the fact that the Hurricanes offense continues to be some combination of snake bit and just not good enough at generating offense.
Tracking through the watch points in my game preview actually offers a decent capsule of the game.
From the preview
1) Peters’ formula and its success
As I expected, Peters rolled out his standard formula for home hockey against teams with top scoring lines trotting out Aho/Staal/Lindholm with Slavin/Pesce against the Kucherov and Stamkos whenever possible. That part of the plan worked reasonably well when Peters got what he wanted for match ups. Slavin and Pesce were on the the ice for Tyler Johnson’s power play goal against, and Pesce was on the ice for the garbage goal by Kucherov late, but at even strength they held their own against Stamkos and company.
Yet, the game was a textbook example of why an extreme match up and defensive focus can be flawed against great teams. With enough mixing and matching here and there, it just is not possible to get the match up you want each time, and it can also lead to disjointed play. The Hurricanes had cycled through all four of their forward lines only 1:23 into the game trying to play the game of cat and mouse, and the extreme version of line matching mostly continued throughout. On the one hand, Peters is smart to try to play best on best. On the other hand, the single-minded focus at times felt like the strategy was solely to clamp down on an elite scoring team and try to beat them 2-1. I do not need to dig up statistics to guess what the results would be trying to beat high scoring teams 2-1 night in and night out. And that leads to the second watch point…
2) More contributors
My second point sought more contributors on offense. The Hurricanes did muster a reasonable volume of near misses, but the finishing was nowhere to be found. Lindholm found himself with a few really good chances and mustered a post, a whiff on a half open net and a shot into the goalie’s crest on a point blank chance. Aho continued his struggles receiving and shooting with another half whiff. And aside from Jeff Skinner, none of the Hurricanes forwards just look comfortable with a puck in their shooting wheelhouse right now. That obviously needs to change for the team to be successful.
3) A home ice spark
The first period actually was not horrible. The Hurricanes were the better team early, but when two power plays failed to yield a goal, the ice seemed to even out. The Hurricanes then looked some combination of deflated and/or just not intense enough in the second period after falling behind. As has been my read on the Hurricanes dating back a couple years now, the Hurricanes gained momentum AFTER scoring not to get scoring. The spark finally came when Jaccob Slavin pulled the team within one goal early in the third period, but the good guys never got closer.
A few other notes
Justin Williams and the search for desperation before things are truly desperate
As noted above, one of the things that has troubled me over the past couple years of struggles has been the team’s inability to ride a bit of adversity to a higher gear. More so, the team seems to find a higher gear only after it opportunistically scores and then dials it up. That works okay if the ice breaker goal comes, but it is also a recipe for a bunch of ‘too little too lates’.
Justin Williams is interesting in this regard. Almost as if he has an innate sense for when things are headed the wrong way and something drastic needs to happen to change the vibe, he has lost his gloves midway through consecutive games that saw the Hurricanes struggling to find it. The minor penalties are not ideal, and he did not find a willing partner in either case, but I actually trust his intuition for when something in the vibe and atmosphere needs to be significantly different and immediately.
This is also why my preference was to give Williams the ‘C’ from the beginning. No doubt, he will still lead and do all that he can do to propel this team upward, but I think he would have been afforded a greater opportunity to effect a mindset shift at times like this if he were more formally in the center of the huddle.
The team has been down this road a few years in a row with an up and down start to the season. Past seasons have seen the team unable to find some combination of desperation and a spark soon enough. The official leaders are the same set as the previous failures. Somehow something needs to be different this time.
Things are not desperate yet. The Hurricanes are 3-3-1 which not horrible. And a two-game losing streak is not a calamity. But here’s the thing…When a team waits until things are truly desperate to play desperate, it is almost always too late. Here is hoping that the team in total can muster the same ‘this is not okay’ that Williams has exhibited in consecutive games.
The fourth line and its Achilles’ heel
First on the positive side of the ledger, the fourth line played a significant role in a huge goal to give the Hurricanes a chance in the third period.
The fourth line was on the ice for the only goal for and played a significant role in it providing the offensive zone time, the scrambly chaos in front of Vasilevskiy and ultimately providing the screen on the goal.
The fourth line has also built itself an identity playing a puck possession and cycling game in the offensive zone that keeps the opposing teams’ scorers far from where they can score. The fourth line has also been pretty sound defensively in its own end. But the Achilles’ heel that continues to bite the group is the collective group’s lack of Jordan Staal and/or Victor Rask like awareness for how to provide puck support and short easy outlet passes for the defensemen. On a regular basis, the fourth-liners actually help the defense win the puck in the defensive zone but that mostly flee to the neutral zone without decisively finding places to be safe and sound pass options. The result, regularly, is that opposing teams are increasingly forechecking aggressively and winning the puck back either with steals in the defensive zone (very bad) or more regularly the Hurricanes defenseman making the safe play and chucking the puck into the neutral zone to relieve pressure (much less bad). Either way, the result with the fourth line on the ice is too often that the Hurricanes are forced to play defense two or three times. This is especially problematic since quite often Peters is using the fourth line as a second checking line behind Staal’s line such that Kruger and company are matched against lines that are good in transition and at scoring.
It was technically on the penalty kill, but this is what happened on the Tyler Johnson goal with the Canes winning the puck but Kruger and Nordstrom not having good positioning and sense for how to help the defense move the puck forward. It also happened a couple other times on shifts following Hurricanes’ power plays where Kruger’s line stepped onto the ice with Slavin/Pesce at the expiration of the power play and against Kucherov and Stamkos.
This is definitely another one for the video coaching staff and Bill Peters to clean up a bit. It is especially important if he wants to continue to lean on the fourth line for tough match ups when Staal’s line is not available.
No way can one pin what was essentially a 2-1 loss against an elite offense on the goalie. But at the same time, in rewatching the goals against, I think Darling had a chance on each of the first two goals and might, like some of the forwards who are struggling to score, be trying a bit too hard.
On the Tyler Johnson rebound goal, Darling was in good position to take away the angle, but when he was still moving aggressively, he did not get square to the shooter. As a result, instead of the rebound landing in front of him, it deflected to his side and in front of the gaping net.
The second Tampa Bay goal saw Darling make a good save but not control the rebound. From that point forward, I do no think Darling every really re-tracked the puck as he instead went into a whirling spin that actually saw him do a 180 in the net. Had he made a save or maybe had Tampa Bay just missed the net, it might have been termed athleticism. But with a medium speed wrist shot finding its way behind Darling just as he was coming out of his spin and unable to track the puck, the play looks more like a situation where ‘less is more’ in terms of economy of motion and just facing up to the puck could have been superior.
That said, if you back out the empty-netters and garbage goal, Tuesday’s loss marks three games in which Darling gave up two goals, needed only three to win and instead was tagged with a loss. The margin for error it too tiny when a team is not scoring.
The defense below the top
After what I thought was a decent start to the season, the Hurricanes blue line is gradually resembling the 2016-17 defense and the problems that came with it.
Peters started the season trying to balance the defense, but it took only one tough period before Peters went back to top-heavy with Slavin and Pesce reunited. It will be interesting to see how Peters proceeds. The scoring struggles are absorbing the spotlight right now, but I am not sure that there are not also small cracks developing in the blue that needs to be a strength.
Perspective is important
At a basic level, I found more bad than good in Tuesday’s loss, but it is also important to reiterate the context that saw the Hurricanes lose to a team that no one else is beating right now either.
A tough path forward
I think it is fair to say that the Hurricanes are facing a bit of adversity right now. As noted above, important is for something to be different from the past couple years that saw some of the downturns extend too long.
While I would consider Tampa Bay to be the toughest draw this week, by no means is the rest of the week easy. On Thursday, the Hurricanes face another offensive juggernaut that is hot in the Maple Leafs, and then the Hurricanes finish up three games in four days against two perennial playoff teams from the Western Conference in the Blues and Ducks.
Next up is a road tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.