Friday’s preseason finale featured a Hurricanes lineup that looked fairly close to what we will see in Winnipeg for the regular season opener next Thursday. The game also represented the last tune up to get ready for real hockey.
The first period was very much a mixed bag. The Hurricanes won the shots on goal battle but had much less of a margin of victory in terms of overall shots. And despite outplaying the Capitals, the Hurricanes were sloppy and struggled at times to move the puck out of their own end. None were of the horrific variety by I counted at least 5 turnovers by the Hurricanes defensemen trying to move the puck out of the defensive zone and into the neutral zone. As with a few other preseason games, the Hurricanes were better as the game wore on. The good guys went up 1-0 on a pretty play that saw Hanifin play the puck forward and then quickly skate into a lane to receive the puck back. He ultimately fed the puck to Jordan Staal who zipped a pass to Lee Stempniak at the far post for a pretty goal. Also in the second period Noah Hanifin showed off the shot that he worked on over the summer when he flat out beat Holtby short side on the power play to push the Canes to a 2-0 lead. The Hurricanes were unable to hold the lead eventually pushing to overtime at 2-2 and then to a shootout. Jeff Skinner scored again as did Teuvo Teravainen on the way to Jaccob Slavin potting a goal to win the shootout 3-2 in 4 rounds. Justin Faulk left the game early in the second period with what Coach Bill Peters described as “a little bit of general soreness” in his post-game press conference, so hopefully it is as minor as it sounds.
‘What I’m watching’ check in
1) Noah Hanifin / Roland McKeown
Roland McKeown looked good overall playing in an NHL pair in a game closer to NHL competition late in preseason. Noah Hanifin had a solid game overall both in terms of being sound defensively and also in terms of driving play with his skating and often with the puck on his stick. The first goal was a direct result of him driving the offensive zone and creating a complicated scenario for the defense to sort out before feeding the puck to Jordan Staal. His power play goal highlighted some of his work this summer improving upon his shot that was not yet up to NHL par last season. In addition to a great night on the score sheet, he just looked comfortable with the puck on his stick and smooth skating with or without it. The only dent in Hanifin’s night was a rough couple seconds which is all it takes in the NHL on 1 of Washington’s goals. Hanifin went to retrieve a puck in his own end and was a bit lackadaisical maybe losing the puck and then more significantly failing to stay positionally sound. Losing the puck was a small problem. Losing inside position on the net was another problem especially since he was trying to find the puck. When you put them together, the result was a turnover coupled with an instant opportunity to just walk to the net and shoot from point blank range. Such is the trials of youth especially on defense in the NHL. But when I net it out, Noah Hanifin is a better player in noticeable ways than he was when he left Raleigh last spring and that constant improvement is exactly the path toward becoming the top pairing defenseman that he was projected to be when the Hurricanes drafted him fifth overall in a deep 2015 draft.
2) Lee Stempniak with Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom
The more I watch Stempniak, the more I think he is just a good well-rounded hockey player importantly with hockey IQ as a key component. Up until today’s game, I was most impressed with his heady playmaking that led to quality scoring chances for his line mates. He had a couple more of those today, but then he also knew to part himself on the far post and be ready to shoot as the Hurricanes worked the puck around the net, out the other side and then right to him on the back door. His well-rounded game fits well on any line and he looked good on Jordan Staal’s line on Friday, but I have a slight preference toward putting him back with Skinner/Rask with the goal being to funnel as many of the scoring chances that he creates onto Jeff Skinner’s stick But there really is no wrong answer for where to play him.
3) Phil Di Giuseppe with Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner
Recently I coined the term “The Forgotten Man for Phil Di Giueppe because of his floating around the roster mostly with AHL-level line mates despite having a solid 2015-16 season at the NHL level. Friday he was reunited with Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask and had a night that made him much harder to forget. The longer version is probably for a different article, but the evolution of Di Giuseppe’s game has been significant. He came out of the University of Michigan as a reasonably touted skill forward. In the couple years since then, his game has gradually started to look more like an Erik Cole or Tuomo Ruutu type of power forward game. In the second period, he had a ‘lifted him up off his skates and rattle the boards’ type of check on Chorney who headed to the locker room afterward. It was the kind of hit that changes games when defensemen start looking over their shoulder when headed to the end wall for the rest of the game. Then he answered the call and won his first NHL fight in the third period when challenged by Matt Niskanen. Post-game he had a nasty looking yellowish, purplish index finger with a mangled fingernail, but as best I know it fell into the category of just a hockey injury and not something that would keep him out of practice or the lineup.
4) Lucas Wallmark
He did not look out of place or in over his head centering the fourth line. He reminds me very much of Victor Rask in his ahead of his age understanding and attention to detail in terms of supporting the puck both offensively and defensively in all 3 zones and in almost any situation. That starting place is an incredibly good starting point for being a sound NHL centerman. He did get separated from or ridden off the puck a couple times suggesting that he could improve in terms of being a little stronger and also learning how to shield the puck. I do not think that Wallmark played so well that he for certain seized a roster slot nor would I say that he played so poorly that he is out of the mix. I am not sure how comfortable Bill Peters is with Patrick Brown at center (he is a center/wing but has logged more ice time at wing in Hurricanes sweater), but from what I have seen I would love 1 more preseason game to see Brown centering 2 NHL wings. Brown might be the best mix of trying to get the safe and sound foundation with a little more mobility and offensive upside.
5) The power play
The flexible triangle-like umbrella with a point man mostly in the center of the ice was there again today, and interestingly it stayed when Justin Faulk departed the game and Ron Hainsey was in the trigger position. The power netted the Hanifin goal and stayed out of trouble in terms of turning the puck over for transition chances against.
A few other notes
Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen as Whitney/Cullen/LaRose: Once they enter the offensive zone with control of the puck, the Nordic kids line very much reminds of Whitney/Cullen/LaRose from the regular season in the magical 2005-06 season. That line was able to use quickness to play an off the boards cycling style of game whereby the defense was just constantly chasing the puck in small spaces until ultimately it led to a scoring chance. They have decent straight line speed, but more significant is their quickness and agility in smaller spaces in the offensive zone. I am too tired to go through the entirety of my Hurricanes hockey memory, but I think you could make a strong case that this line is 1 of the Hurricanes all-time bests in terms of raw skill. This is not to say that this is (yet anyway) 1 of the franchise’s best lines, but the volume of skill is a great starting point for trying to be great. The downside with this line is a continued propensity to try to do too much in high risk/low reward scenarios stickhandling in dangerous places in their own end. The volume of turnovers and near turnovers n this scenario continues to be too high for the NHL but Peters and the coaching staff should be able to remedy this by coaching for simple play in dangerous places and more elaborate play in safe places.
Noah Hanifin: Aside from the 1 costly miscue, I really liked his game on Friday. He is becoming more comfortable playing with the puck on his stick without forcing things or doing too much. He is picking his spots to go Pitkanen and doing so intelligently. His attention to detail is still a work in process, but Hanifin seems to be making significant strides in leveraging his skating ability to open up the game and attack. He is also showing more signs of being able to process the options with the puck on his stick resulting in more ‘skip’ passes forward to spring forwards behind the layer of defense in the neutral zone.
Give me word that Justin Faulk is fine and that Di Giuseppe’s hand injury ’tis but a flesh wound’, and I think I am ready for regular season hockey.