As noted in my Saturday article entitled, “The P-word; What does it take?”, the Carolina Hurricanes entered Saturday’s game against the New Jersey with something on the line. I feared this game was a trap game. As far as the standings go, the Devils are not the toughest match up, but their 3-0 mark against the Hurricanes entering this game showed that they could be a tough match up. And sure enough, after a strong Hurricanes start, the Devils rallied and made it a tough out. But the Hurricanes battled throughout and got some timely scoring from scoring leaders Jeff Skinner and Sebastian Aho.
As I said on Twitter about 3 minutes into the game, the Hurricanes seemed to have pace and intensity level early. I think that is an important checkpoint from here on. With such a busy schedule in March, the possibility of the team having 1 of those games (like against the Flyers on Sunday) is always there even in games with a day of rest the day before. The game was more controlled than a few of the wild games recently, but the Hurricanes generally had the better of a low-event first period. They did not score, but the Canes exited the first period giving up very little in terms of scoring chances and finished the period with an 8-6 shot advantage.
The second period started similarly. The Hurricanes managed a few shots but not really any great scoring chances but also gave up absolutely nothing. But 4 minutes in the Hurricanes turned a strong offensive possession shift into a goal when the Aho/Lindholm/Di Giuseppe line controlled the puck in the offensive zone and finished when Lindholm made yet another great pass from the side of the net finding a flashing Aho who finished. The Canes and Devils then traded power plays with the Canes failing to score on 39 seconds of 5-on-3 power play time. After a lackluster first half of the game, the Devils seemed to find a higher gear midway through the second period. New Jersey dialed it up and were the better team for the second half of the second period. After putting only 1 shot on net in the first 10 minutes, they fired away for 9 in the second 10 minutes of the second period. Their second period goal actually came on a bit of a break. A Hurricanes’ cross-ice pass that was destined to go off the boards at the blue line and into the offensive zone instead hit the linesman and caromed back into the neutral zone. New Jersey retrieved it almost perfectly timed with a Hurricanes’ line change. With Klas Dahlbeck already headed to the bench and Jeff Skinner coming behind the play, the play quickly became a 2-on-1. Taylor Hall fed Travis Zajac streaking to the net for the game-tying goal. The officials followed up the accidental ‘oops’ with a missed high stick that caught Skinner in the face. From that point, the Hurricanes played the remainder of the second period mostly under duress but managed to get out of the period without additional damage and still tied at 1-1.
The third period started a bit like the first. The Hurricanes used the intermission to get their feet under them, but with the game tied 1-2 a Devils forward blew by Noah Hanifin to chase down a loose puck for a breakaway. But Lack made the save. Shortly thereafter, Jeff Skinner made a huge individual play when he pick-pocketed a Devils defenseman and then beat goalie Cory Schneider on a breakaway. Then with the Canes fighting hard and looking like they might just scratch and claw their way to a 2-1 win, Sebastian Aho took his turn making an individual play to put the Canes up 3-1 and relieve pressure. He won a puck battle at the side of the net against 3 Devils players and quickly finished. The Hurricanes held on for a huge 3-1 win.
‘What I’m watching follow up’
If you missed my game preview and want to catch up, you can find the preview HERE.
1) Legs, intensity level and jump
The game was a bit of a slow-paced, grinding affair, but the Hurricanes came out of the gate strong and looked ready to go physically. Especially for the first half of the game, the Hurricanes won the territorial battle. I am not sure if it was because the Canes faded a bit or because the Devils finally woke up, but the second half of the second period saw the Devils dominating. The third period was more even, so in total I give the Hurricanes high marks for having it physically still.
2) Firing on all cylinders
This game was not the pretty variety in which the Hurricanes received offense from multiple sources and used it to beat a downtrodden team. There was not a ton of high-grade scoring chances for either team, but when Jeff Skinner got his 1 try, he made the difference. And Sebastian Aho continued his propensity for scoring goals in huge games with 2 on the night. If you missed Aho’s second goal, it is worth hunting down to watch a dozen or so times.
3) Jordan Staal and the grinders
The grinders actually turned out to be Elias Lindholm and Phil Di Giuseppe. They had a number of good puck possession shifts in the offensive zone with Sebastian Aho early in the game and then book-ending Victor Rask in the third period. The depth forwards played well in limited roles, but it was the top half of the roster that drove the win.
Eddie Lack: He continues to play incredibly well. In a tight game, there was no margin for error on Saturday night. Luckily Lack did not need it. There will always be a scrambly element to his game, but as he is settling in and becoming more comfortable and confident, his game is becoming a bit more quiet.
Hanfin/Faulk: He was beaten wide from inside the offensive zone twice in the third period and showed early signs of just not having his skating legs going. Hanifin had a couple tough moments too turning the puck over and also losing a race that led to a breakaway chance. Each also picked up a penalty. But I think there is an important difference to be noted. Earlier in the season when the Hurricanes were struggling mightily on the road, there were multiple tough games for Hainsey/Faulk that were almost impossible to overcome. I felt like Hanifin/Faulk had a tough night on Saturday but battled through it without disastrous consequences.
Elias Lindholm at center: Part of me was of the opinion that absolutely nothing should be changed with Elias Lindholm with his level of play on the rise. But now in a couple games at the center position, he has not lost a beat. When you consider how incredibly good he has been creating scoring chances from behind or beside the net, that move might work out well. His assist on the Aho goal was another such play.
Sebastian Aho: He continues to put up huge efforts in huge games.
Next up for the Hurricanes is the first half of a Monday/Tuesday doubleheader against the Red Wings at PNC Arena AND A CANES HOCKEY GAME OF SIGNIFICANCE ON MARCH 27!