On the surface, the Carolina Hurricanes deserved better in their 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Friday. The game was sloppy, but the Hurricanes were the better team and won the battle in terms of possession time and shot totals. And then even when they did seemingly score, the goal was wiped away by an offsides that happened earlier and had little to do with the goal
But on the other hand, this game was eerily reminiscent of bad Canes teams from years past that chucked bushels of mostly harmless shots at the net but did not fare as well in terms of winning battles to score goals in close or simply in terms of raw finishing ability.
The game was a strange with regard to what paths might have been expected for it. After some wild 10-goal affairs during the past two seasons, the Isles who entered the game ranked dead last in goals against tried to patch holes in the ship, play a more defensively-oriented style and slow the Canes offensively. In a strange way, it mostly worked. The Isles seemed to give the puck up at will at times, but were nearly perfect in terms of staying on the right side of the puck and keeping the Hurricanes from generating anything on the rush or unmarked in close. The first period was a sluggish and sloppy one with the Isles apparently focused first and foremost on staying out of trouble and the Hurricanes playing along by dialing down into a slow, methodical and more sideways than north-south approach to advancing the puck. The Hurricanes tallied a massive 16 shots on net, but because of how many were from the outside, I think the shot total overstates how dangerous the Hurricanes really were in the first period and also helped Thomas Greiss play his way into the game.
The second period started with more of the same. The Hurricanes continued to be the better and control possession and shot totals but just like the first period were unable to convert either to a goal. As often happens when a team controls play for a long time, momentum shifts when opponent scores first. And that is what happened at almost exactly the midway point of the second period. Johnny Boychuk fired what looked like a fairly harmless shot from the blue line and beat Ward to get the Islanders on the scoreboard first. It is hard to tell from the replay whether Ward was screened or if maybe he was actually just distracted by screen (as in he looked away from the shooter). Regardless, after mustering even less for scoring chances for the Canes, the Isles struck first. Then the Hurricanes seemed to scored when Jeff Skinner fired a shot from between the face-off circles, but the goal was waved off because the Hurricanes were offside. And that maybe was just the perfect indicator of how the night was going to go for the Hurricanes without reversing course. Despite being outshot 28 to 15 through two periods, the Islanders carried a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
The Hurricanes did try to push in the third period, but the Isles were even more content to sit back and defend the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. Combined with the Hurricanes sloppiness moving the puck from stick to stick that was a recipe for more offensive zone time but also a relative shortage of grade A scoring chances. A puck-handling mishap at the offensive blue line that saw Noah Hanifin miss on a pass to Justin Faulk. Faulk reacted lackadaisically and instead of mustering the desperation to either get a piece the puck to knock it forward or tie it up on the boards, he mostly fumbled around and sent the Isles off to the raises. Hanifin chased down the eventual goal scorer from behind but seemed torn on whether to try to defend the play cleanly or just tackle the Isles player for a penalty. That was just the opening he needed to beat Ward and make it 2-0 Islanders. To add insult to injury John Tavares scored late without even putting the puck in the net when he was tripped on a breakaway with an empty net.
More than anything, the game reminded me of Hurricanes games from 4-5 years ago that saw the team struggle to score and then try to solve the problem by simply dialing up the volume of what was not working (chucking too many harmless shots at the net).
Recap/notes from the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders
1) The power outage rears its ugly head again
I have written multiple times in the past week about the Hurricanes struggles to find enough offense from the forwards and how it had been overshadowed by a couple big games led by blue line power play and a small group of forward scorers. None of Staal, Teravainen, Stempniak, Ryan or Nordstrom have scored since the home stretch started on January 30. And Williams, Rask, Lindholm and Di Giuseppe are stuck on a single goal during that stretch. That adds up to a total of goals for nine forwards over a stretch of 90 total games. The surge in scoring by the blue line and power play in a couple outburst games mask a problem that continues to grow.
2) 31st! 31st!
The game was bizarre to me. The Islanders who are dead last in the league in goals against made adjustments and with them shut the Hurricanes out. A shutout is never good obviously, but it would be somewhat different it were a good defensive team playing tight hockey to its strengths. But the Islanders entered as the absolute worst team defensively in the NHL, and Thomas Greiss came into the game with a sub-.890 save percentage and a goals against average that had somehow ballooned to more than 4.00.
3) The two things that bother me most
First, I come out of a game like this asking myself what this team’s identity is or at least hopes to be. It is unclear to me what the Hurricanes aim to be. Theoretically, they could be a fast-skating attacking team offensively, but the slow, step-wise methodical, ‘don’t make a mistake’ style of moving the puck cautiously up the suggests that is not it. Because of the intermittent struggles defensively and sub-par goaltending, it does not seem realistic to aim to win regularly with air tight defense. And therein maybe lies the problem. It is not clear what exactly the repeatable version of good Carolina Hurricanes hockey in 2017-18 looks like. Occasionally, it is high tempo offense. Other times it is a puck possession game that stays out of trouble and generates enough offense to eek out wins. Here and there it is a defensive brand of hockey seemingly built to win 2-1. But over any course of longer than a handful of games even when good, I just do not get any sense that there is a repeatable formula that strings together the dozen or more games of strong hockey that this probably needs to make the playoffs.
Second, the inability of this team to find the higher gear after pushing up to where they want to be is completely and utterly maddening. Under no circumstances can this team obtain and then keep good things. Need a bounce back after a horrible loss? The Hurricanes quite often have responded admirably and found that. Need a couple wins to push up the standings? The Hurricanes have been able to do that multiple times? Need to take care of business against bad teams? The Hurricanes have significantly improved in that regard in 2017-18? But in the event that the team manages to climb its way a small amount above the playoff fray, it has unanimously resulted an ‘exhale’ type setback that sees the team unable to muster the desperation and hunger that got them there. Desperate play continues to be reserved for truly desperate situations which pretty much assures that the team will continue to find its way back there.
4) Noah Hanifin as the intensity increases
In trying to find a couple positives, I have been watching the young players closely in games like this that take on a bit of a playoff-like element. Hanifin was involved in the turnover and goal against mishap for the Isles second which was obviously not a great moment, but in general, I continue to like his ceiling. His scoring has slowed a bit but has still taken strides forward this season. I also really like his potential when things dial up and get faster and more physical. Even when pace picks up, Hanifin is at the top of the group in terms of speed and skating ability. And when the physical play rises, Hanifin is big enough and strong enough to hold his own. His game is still a work in progress in terms of eliminating the occasional defensive lapses, but he projects to be capable of dialing up the physical part of his game when that is required in big games.
5) Jeff Skinner
Today’s goal did not count unfortunately, but I still give him credit for starting to carry the mail again offensively after a slow stretch. With the aforementioned power outage that spans three-fourths of the Hurricanes forward group, the timing could not be better.
6) Cam Ward
I am not sure what to make of his game. The team in front of him did not score, so that rightfully is the story of the game. I am unsure what to think about the first goal he allowed. I guess best case, he was screened but with screen out a ways, he should have been able to find a sight line. Worst case, I wonder if he was just fooled and that the shot came just as he looked away from the shooter to the potential screen. Regardless of how one wants to grade Ward, the goalie at the other end of the rink was better which hurts when that is one of the worst goalies in the league this season.
7) Still alive despite more signs of trouble
Despite whatever negatives everyone wants to justifiably heap on top of Friday’s loss or the back-to-back losses, the Hurricanes will still wake up on Saturday morning very much in the playoff chase. The Hurricanes are only a point behind the Islanders with a game in hand and are tied with the Blue Jackets but giving up a game in hand.
It’s not over. It just feels like it too often.
Next up is a rematch against the New Jersey Devils this time at PNC Arena on Sunday. With two consecutive losses, the importance of that game has grown.