On Saturday, beautiful weather and a holiday weekend offered potentially the best opportunity for spring tailgating until the team tries again in 2018-19 for a return to the premium version that includes playoff hockey.
With both teams out of the playoff chase closing out March, the game had minimal significance in the standings which left fans looking for story lines. At PNC Arena there was a goalie match up between Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Ward to go with the continued tracking of the emerging Teravainen/Aho/Zykov line. And on television, the game was dubbed Sebastian Aho “showcase” night with features and interviews on the young star.
Perhaps inspired by the competition at the other end of the rink, the first period shaped up as goalie battle. The Hurricanes had some good chances early but were stoned by Lundqvist. Then Ward returned the favor later in the first period when the Rangers mounted some offense. The period finished in a scoreless tie with Ward and Lundqvist owning the day.
Early on the second period slogged along with sloppy and sluggish play without much worth noting. But along the way another round of the Hurricanes’ intermittent defensive break downs crept in and gave the Rangers chances and ultimately the lead. The first Rangers goal came when the Hurricanes managed to get four defenders to the same side of the ice without enough attention to detail marking opposing players and a fifth maybe too narrowly focused on his assignment who was not dangerous. More directly, Teuvo Teravainen lost track of Ryan Sproul who stepped uncontested into the slot and Sebastian Aho though not directly responsible for the goal scorer was maybe too narrowly focused on defending a player who was out of the play near the blue line with the ice behind him wide open. The Rangers struck again when Aho turned the puck over at the blue line on the power play leading immediately to a odd many rush against. When a deft saucer pass on a 2-on-1 eluded Faulk’s stick, Kevin Hayes finished into the back side of the net. The Hurricanes pushed a bit late but ultimately exited the period down 2-0.
With the game grinding away and the Hurricanes on the path to another game with a lead in shots on goal but a loss on the score board, the Hurricanes climbed back into the game midway through the third period when Derek Ryan found Jeff Skinner with a nifty centering pass. A good chance for Phil Di Giuseppe off the rush on another pass by Ryan was probably the Hurricanes best chance to draw even, but otherwise the Rangers did well congesting the neutral zone and setting up obstacles at the blue line through most of the third period. The Hurricanes did muster a furious flurry in the final minutes with the goalie pulled. The Hurricanes collected a bunch of face-off wins, a ton of offensive zone time, a penalty drawn and some near misses but were unable to crack Lundqvist to tie the game.
Notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers
1) Blue line transition as a work in progress
On my list of things to write about in more detail is what I believe is a transition and relate growing pains for the Hurricanes young blue line. I have written multiple times about the difference between potential to be good and realizing it. The team is now a couple years deep into having a young blue line that projects to be a strength that drives wins but also one that has not arrived yet. As a group that skates well and possesses some puck skills, the potential for offense is there, but through about two-thirds of the season the Canes blue line had underperformed scoring-wise.
Nothing has been said about it directly, and I think the changes are more about mindset than system, but I think the Canes run of scoring woes in mid-February prompted Peters and the coaching staff to try to coax more offense from the defensemen. The result has been more offense and scoring which is a positive obviously. Slavin and Pesce both boosted their production the last third of the season. But I think the downside has been growing pains in terms of defensive zone coverage that finds the team trying to keep the offense but eliminate the accompanying defense and puck management lapses. Saturday featured another game of intermittent defensive break downs.
2) Derek Ryan
Playing for his next contract be it with the Hurricanes or with another team, Derek Ryan continued his run of offensive production down the stretch. First he fed Jeff Skinner for a point blank chance and goal, and then minutes later he threaded a puck to Phil Di Giuseppe for an unsuccessful grade A chance to tie the game. With the assist on Saturday, Ryan now has six points in his last four games.
3) Sebastian Aho
The offensive and playmaking part of Sebastian Aho’s game at the center position seemed ready to go out of the gate upon his transition back to his natural center position. Based on that and the team’s need for more playmaking out of the center position, I expect Aho to remain a center heading into the 2018-19 season. But his game without the puck is still a work in progress. Two areas jump out as showing room for improvement as he continues to adjust. First is learning to better take away options, angles and skating lanes in the neutral zone to keep opposing players from using the middle of the rink to pick up speed approaching the blue line. Second is that he has room to improve in terms of sorting out when the right play is to mark his assignment and when he needs to adjust to cover up break downs. Among Aho’s many strengths is his ability to adapt quickly, so he will do fine learning on the job while his natural offensive ability leads the way.
4) Season officially over
By my estimation, the capitulation point for playoff hopes for the 2017-18 season was the ugly loss to the Minnesota Wild on March 6. With a month to go, the team easily had a chance mathematically at that point, but after failing to get enough from the heavy home stretch in February and a some sputtering after it, I think that was more or less the end. But for those who hold on until the math officially makes it impossible, that officially happened on Saturday with the loss.
Next up for the Hurricanes is a road tilt against the Florida Panthers on Monday night.