What a difference a few games makes. Only 4 games ago, the Penguins shredded a young Canes blue line and beat Ward repeatedly to the tune of an ugly loss. The result was some stern words from Coach Bill Peters and a high-end bag skate at practice the next day. Fast forward to tonight and the Canes beat the same team (with the stars in the lineup) 2-1 and did so on the back of Cam Ward’s play. He won the first star at PNC Arena and was the only possible choice for anyone who watched the game. The game overall was choppy. The team came out with a strong start and carried play for the first 5 minutes. It also had a good first period. But it then struggled mightily in the second period between taking too many penalties and being sloppy with the puck in the defensive zone. But Cam Ward seemed to have an answer for anything and everything, and that was the difference.
–Cam Ward. There are many superlatives that you could put on his play, but the thing that stands out most was how comfortable and calm he looked. And that is how he looks when he is playing well. He fought the puck about none and controlled rebounds pretty well all night. And he made a few of the emphatic glove saves that to me are a sign that he is seeing the puck real well.
Peters has already said that he will get the start on opening night in Nashville. As the incumbent, it was his job to lose, and he did not lose it.
–Michal Jordan. When you consider that he spent the entire night on a pairing that Peters was trying to match against Sidney Crosby he had a good night. He will not be the every night #2 defenseman when the Canes get healthy, but the fact that he was able to adequately stand in for this role against the Penguins fire power is a huge positive for the team’s depth on the blue line.
–Ryan Murphy versus Noah Hanifin. It was interesting to see them play side by side. Over 2 years Ryan Murphy has made significant progress in ironing out all of the details that are often the difference between being a sound defenseman who can play in the NHL and one who has high end skill but just makes too many mistakes. The volume that Murphy is making continues to decrease. As talented as Noah Hanifin is, he is still very loose with his play at times. When you pass the puck across the front of your own net, it needs to hit a partner’s stick 10 out of 10 times. 9 is not good enough. When you backhand the puck at your own blue line, you need to be sure that there is no one going to jump that passing lane 10 out of 10 times – not 9. Hanifin is already physically ready to play in the NHL. He already makes enough good plays to play in the NHL. The thing that will most determine when he becomes an elite NHL defenseman will not be dictated by either of those things. It will be dictated by how quickly he can tighten up the small stuff and go 4 for 4 every single shift on a varied batch of small decisions/plays.
–James Wisniewski. He managed an elbowing penalty and a double minor high-sticking penalty which was enough to handicap the team for much of the second period. That is obviously too much. He also seemed to be off a step timing-wise on his passes. After a couple days out with a minor injury, he probably just needs a few more reps.
–Gerbe/JStaal/Nash. The line gets its identity and what it needs to do to score and sure enough it resulted in another goal when Jordan Staal took a bad angle shot that went through Riley Nash and into the net. The trio had another good night on the forecheck that created some other chances. Minus any pure playmaking on that line, I think they get how they need to play and what they need to do. So far so good.
–Kris Versteeg. He reminds me a bit of Ray Whitney. He is simply a smart hockey player. The Terry shot featured Versteeg buying time at the blue line and then putting the puck right on Eric Staal’s stick with space. Then he managed to skate into Terry’s path and leave Terry a screened shot right behind him. Not sure exactly sure what his assist total is, but it is basically one every game.
–Skinner/Rask/Terry. Terry scored but it was on a partial line change with Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg still on the ice. Otherwise, the volume of good scoring chances for this line was small. The challenge still in front of Bill Peters is how to find enough chemistry, playmaking or combination to get both Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner going. Since the team is winning it will be interesting to see if Peters tinkers a bit around Skinner or just calls this good enough for now/the best he can do.
–The penalty kill went 4 for 4 but spent a bunch of time standing in a box and was not as aggressive winning pucks. That is generally a bad recipe for the skilled units that eat you up if you give them time to work you. Ward probably made the penalty kill look better than it was. The power play was 0 for 1.
The Canes still enter next week with zero points, but I think overall the team is happy with where it is. With a healthy Ron Hainsey hopefully back real soon, I think timing is right to get on with the stuff that counts.