The Hurricanes started preseason by sending a hungry bunch of overmatched kids up against most of the Tampa Bay Lightning juggernaut. The result was a tone-setting effort driven in which the Canes forwards dictated play, tilted the ice and won convincingly. The next two games at home featured increasingly more NHL talent with equally impressive results. Tuesday’s game in Nashville featured a return to the first verse with a lineup filled with Canes kids putting up another impressive win against a Nashville lineup that was pretty close to their NHL squad.
The overarching theme through all of this continues to be the same. The pace, pressure and intensity of the Hurricanes forwards continues to dictate both play and results. Warren Foegele continued his preseason surge when he combined with Clark Bishop for a goal in the first period. He also assisted on the Hurricanes second goal when he fed Brett Pesce for a point shot through traffic that beat Pekka Rinne in the second period. The Hurricanes piled it on in the third period when Trevor van Riemsdyk shot through screens by Valentin Zykov and Julien Gauthier and then when Zykov factored in again on a Brock McGinn goal from in close. Nashville did get on the scoreboard late, but by that point the game was decided.
In the win, Scott Darling continued his run of strong play in preseason. At the midway point of the game, I was not enamored with Darling’s play despite the fact that he had a shutout. His quickness and athleticism was on display in a positive way, but he was also noisy in the sense that he was a bit all over the place and played wide of the net on a few occasions. Though the results were good, the visual felt like a harbinger of bad things to come. But Darling battled his way through the second period with a shutout in hand, and when Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour left him in for the third period, he had his best period yet. Defending a lead, the Hurricanes defense was sloppy in the third period and yielded a good size batch of high-quality scoring chances. But Darling had his best period of the game, allowed only a single goal and emerged with an impressive win.
I am on record as saying before preseason started that virtually nothing could be read into preseason goaltending results, and I mostly stand by that assertion. But that said, because of the season that Darling had in 2017-18, a strong preseason could prove meaningful in terms of building a small foundation of confidence and comfort heading into the regular season.
Before training camp started, I declared Scott Darling and the Hurricanes goaltending situation to be a dice roll. I still think that is the case, but even if only by a small amount Darling’s preseason play increases the odds by as much as is possible in September.
I wish I had an official tally of goals that Valentin Zykov has been a big part of working from his cubicle at the top of the crease. He factored directly in two more goals with his net front presence and helped create at least one other good scoring chance. Both in his short 10-game NHL audition last spring and his preseason play, his game has been a model of consistency. Whenever given the chance Zykov heads straight to work at his cubicle at the top of the crease, and he continues to be effective converting that into offense. His game is a simple one but also an incredibly significant one and something that the Hurricanes have lacked in recent years. He has clearly earned a power play slot and ice time when the team needs a goal.
Warren Foegele’s surge continued. He did not raise as much ire as in his masterpiece against the Capitals on Friday, but he still brought the same pace and intensity and chipped in even more on the score sheet. He scored the all-important first goal from in close and also assisted on Brett Pesce’s goal. I was early among those covering the team in saying that he had more or less locked up an NHL roster spot, but that is starting to become the consensus.
Right now, the Canes forwards pretty much to a man are all chipping in on the forecheck and aggressive style of play. So even the players not on the score sheet are contributing which is significant. But on Tuesday a few of the bigger names were a bit quieter.
By no means was he bad but Janne Kuokkanen was not a clear difference-maker as he has been in previous games.
Andrei Svechnikov was stoned on consecutive point blank chances in the middle of the game. As I commented on Twitter, I think Rinne had his number on both. On the first play, Svechnikov delayed and delayed more to freeze the goalie before pulling to his backhand to shoot. Anything above pad level probably beats a goalie in most leagues, but Rinne read it and made the save look easy. The second attempt saw Svechnikov receive and shoot, but he was a tiny bit slow releasing and Rinne had him covered. Part of Svechnikov’s learning process as a sniper/scorer is becoming just a tiny bit faster and more precise again NHL goalies.
Lucas Wallmark continues to impress me in a Victor Rask kind of way as a center whose decision-making and positioning is consistently solid. His game was not nearly as impressive offensively, but with Jordan Staal out of the lineup, Brind’Amour gave Wallmark’s line a run in a role similar to Staal’s, and he held up well. I increasingly see Wallmark centering a line that sits behind Staal’s to take some of the tough assignments and defensive zone draws. That is a tall order for a player with 19 games of NHL experience, but based on preseason play, it is not inconceivable that it works.
Clark Bishop is a great story of how young players can improve. This time last year, I grouped him with the set players who needed to find a higher level to earn another contract. He seems to be doing just that. After being a fringe player the season before, he had a strong 2017-18 AHL campaign on a checking line with Warren Foegele. He did the same in yesterday’s contest and picked up an assist in the process. He is almost certainly headed for the AHL as early as tomorrow but definitely by the end of the week. But had a preseason that boosted his standing in the organization and increased his chances of winning a next contract.
The Hurricanes do not really have anything left to prove in preseason, but maintaining momentum would be ideal.
The team will try to do that in its final two preseason games on Friday in Washington, D.C. against the Capitals and then at home against the Predators.