As I have said a few times this season, results matter. Especially for a team that has not seen the playoffs for awhile and that has seen its past two seasons largely die during October/November struggles, any kind of win following a two-game losing streak is a huge one. Credit to the Hurricanes for responding and beating a Maple Leafs team that has been very good thus far in 2017-18.
So by the most important measure, Thursday’s 6-3 win over Toronto was a huge success.
As I said on Twitter during the game, the version of NHL hockey is the one that the NHL desperately needs to market itself as a fun and entertaining sport to a broader audience. Especially the first two periods, the game featured an incredible back and forth pace that saw the neutral used primarily to generate speed and both teams trading rushes and chances.
In addition to being fun to watch, the Hurricanes seem to thrive when things open up and turn into a track meet.
‘What I’m watching’ follow up for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Toronto Maple Leafs
If you missed it and care to read the details, the ‘what I’m watching’ style game preview is HERE.
1) The right kind of desperation
Needing a win entering with a two-game losing streak, the Hurricanes brought the intensity early, started on time and jumped out to an early lead which set the tone for the game. Credit to the team’s leadership for channeling whatever came out of Tuesday’s loss into a good start.
2) The blue line
The game was so wide open at times, that it was a tough one for the defensemen. The neutral zone was uncontested for runs of shifts and mostly just served as a place to gather speed before flying in on defensemen.
The most positive story for the defense was a very prosperous night for Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Every other shift that they touched seemed to turn to gold. They were on the ice for four goals for and zero goals against and collected three assists between them along the way. No doubt, being on the ice for so many goals have an element of luck to it, but they also played well.
To my slight surprise, Peters stuck with Slavin/Pesce and Hanifin/Faulk as the split for the top 2 pairings. By no means were Slavin and Pesce flawless nor was it their best game, but they held their own against a talented Toronto scoring punch that came in leading the league in scoring.
I thought Hanifin/Faulk struggled in the fast game and were too often an adventure again. The biggest play was the goal against off the rush. Faulk stepped up at center ice and actually deflected a puck out of mid-air. The fact that the deflection found a Toronto stick was just bad luck, but his decision to step up and stay on the boards was the wrong one and the result was the puck flying by him for a 2-on-1 that might have been prevented or at least slowed if he backed up and moved to the middle of the ice. Instead, he stepped forward and stayed on the wall which created a rush behind him. Hanifin was covering behind Faulk like he should have been and admittedly in a difficult situation. His first priority in that situation is to at least take away the pass, so the chance on Darling is from in front of him not one where he has to fly across the crease at the last minute and make a moving save. Hanifin basically backed up too far, did not manage to take away the passing lane and did not manage to get to either the on rushing player who scored or the rebound that found him. That play was the headline, but in general the duo has yet to put things together.
3) As spark or two offensively
Maybe fittingly, much of the spark came from the depth forwards who have been pretty good in their limited role thus far this season. Josh Jooris scored the all-important first goal and added another tally late. Joakim Nordstrom could easily have had a goal or two even but just did not finish on any of the good chances that he played his way into. And former fourth-liner Brock McGinn had a solid game and was rewarded for his hard hat and lunch pail work with a late goal. When you tally it up, the fourth line and 2017-18 fourth line alumni (Brock McGinn) scored three goals. That is HUGE production from a checking line plus help and even bigger when you consider how starved for scoring the team was coming into the game. Teuvo Teravainen is the other player who most stood out on a strong night with many standouts.
4) Bill Peters’ line combinations
Peters did not do anything drastic, but what he did do worked. Teravainen and Rask seemed to help lift each other out of scoring funks. And though I am not a fan of it logically, Skinner/Ryan/Williams had a number of dominant puck possession shifts. They were not rewarded on the score sheet as much as other lines (only a single assist for Skinner), but they played much better than top line scoring statistics give them credit for.
Darling’s game log has other cleaner games where he gave up the standard two goals that should more often than not earn a win, but three of those (not counting the piling on at the end of the Lightning game that made for a 5-1 final score) turned into 2-1 losses. On Thursday night in Toronto, Darling seemed to be fighting the puck a bit. He had a number of controllable rebounds leak out into the crease area. And somewhat like the season opener, he seemed to be fighting off first shots as best he could. But the game was wide open and wild through two periods at least, and Darling outplayed the goalie at the other end and picked up a win in the process. The game also makes for a nice transition point with Darling getting the team back into the win column before a day off with Ward likely to start on Friday in the second half of the back to back.
The fourth line
I cannot say enough how big of a game this was for the depth forwards. Jooris getting on the score board early immediately dialed down the level of stick squeezing from at least 8 to something reasonable.
He continues to impress me. He is on track to become the next Chad LaRose=>Patrick Dwyer=>Nathan Gerbe who is maybe overslotted in the top 9 and somehow incurs the wrath of the fan base due to no fault of his own. I have never been as high on McGinn as most in terms of being an NHL scorer, and nothing has changed in that regard. McGinn would need to find a different gear or trajectory to score enough to be an every game top 9 forward for me. Nonetheless, I have been impressed with his play thus far in 2017-18. He has a clear identity for his game and an unwavering every shift consistency. Not counting the goal which was a bigger play, McGinn had at least 7-8 small plays again on Thursday freeing up pucks, forcing defensemen to unload the puck early because he was coming, creating havoc on the forecheck, etc. Good for him being rewarded for his hard hat and lunch pail work.
He had his second stellar game of the year. He has four points in those two games and exactly none in the other six games. The next level for Teravainen is figuring out how to get more out of the ‘meh’ games. It is not possible to be lights out every night in the NHL. Even elite scorers like Jeff Skinner are streaky. But the key is to avoid the invisibility cloak and make a few plays and grind out a few points even on the slow days. Right now, Teravainen scores in the 90th percentile for his great games and in the 15th percentile for the games in between. I actually do not think he needs more 90’s. What he needs is the ability to turn many of the 15’s into 40’s or 50’s.
Because they did not register a goal in a high scoring game, they were the under the radar version of good. The stereotype for an offensive zone possession line is three big, strong players who cycle the puck on the boards. This group is not that obviously, but they had multiple dominant offensive zone shifts that just did not quite end with a goal.
On a team with a number of players sputtering offensively coming into Thursday, Rask who had not scored since opening day was probably near the top of the ranking of players who needed to break out. His face-off win netted him an assist, and a great receive/finish goal got him into that column. The precise finish by Rask on Teravainen’s pass is the video version of why I think he could be an interesting partner for Aho who at least right now is a playmaker waiting to happen from the wing.
Next up is a quick turnaround and also likely a less friendly game against one of the heavies from the Western Conference who unlike Toronto who was happy playing in the middle of the rink will try to push the game to the walls.