Winning in the margins
How the Hurricanes are winning on nights where they don't have their A game
It’s a very strange time to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan. This is usually the part of the year where the team is clinging to dear life for a playoff spot. Tensions are always high and every loss or goal against feels more like six. Add two more onto that if it’s a divisional loss or in regulation. They were always a tier below the playoff locks & struggled to even keep up with the wild card teams. This year, they are one of those teams in a higher tier and it’s kind of hard to get used to as a fan.
They just played four straight games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team they’re usually fighting with for playoff positioning, won only one game in regulation and really only had control of one of those games. In a “normal” season, this would be a major setback. This year, it’s only a speed bump and they can take their time to “get right” before the playoffs start. As a fanbase, we’re trained to expect the worst because the Canes are a team that had to play a “perfect” game in order to win for years. If they gave up the first goal, didn’t have their skating legs or had shoddy goaltending, it was usually a rough night. This year, things have been different. They’re comfortably in a playoff spot and this is despite them not playing their best in more than a handful of games.
With the condensed schedule and general weirdness of this season, it’s not too surprising that the team’s had their share of off nights. It’s just that these are games they normally lose. They’ve had to go to the goaltending or special teams well to bail them out of shoddy five-on-five performances more than usual. Sometimes it’s frustrating to watch as a fan because you have this image of what you think the Hurricanes should be compared to what they actually look like come gametime. It usually stems from how they play rather than if they win or lose. This miniseries they just had against Columbus is a good example of that.
Columbus, a team Carolina is usually battling with for playoff positioning, has been a tough out for the Canes this year even though they’re outside the playoff picture. Carolina “won” the battle in most statistical categories, but they weren’t exactly easy wins. Game 2 from Saturday night is one I want to highlight.
The Jackets are frustrating to because it’s easy to outplay them and get stuck in one-goal game, especially if you’re a team like Carolina that prefers to play in one zone instead of trading chances. Columbus has been a team that has relied heavily on controlled entries & quick-strike offense this year. I’ve tracked about half of their season and 42% of their overall 5-on-5 shot attempts have come off the rush, or the sequence following a controlled entry. It hasn’t exactly worked for them this year, they’ve carried the puck in on only 45% of their entries, so the team has had a devil of a time creating offense. Compare those numbers to the chart above and you’ll see that trend followed suit in this series. Columbus didn’t create any offense, but neither did Carolina.
They outshot them, outchanced them (barely) but the flow of the game was dominated by the Jackets if you look at how many entries were created off zone entries. Part of that is just playing styles. Columbus’ goal was to enter the zone, get something on net and go from there. Carolina isn’t a team that likes to force plays that aren’t open. Thus, you saw a lot of plays like this from Martin Necas where he created a rush, but waited until something opened so they could slow things down & wait for Columbus’ coverage to break.
It just never happened and Columbus turned a lot of empty possessions by Carolina into rushes of their own. The Canes had the puck more often & arguably had more chances, but that was just fine for the Jackets because nothing ever materialized. They were never under duress compared to how much they had to defend in this game. The only place Carolina could take control over was faceoffs. I don’t know if they have any “set” plays off draws, but there was definitely a huge emphasis on at least getting the puck on goal if they won any offensive zone faceoffs. It’s how they got two of their goals and over half of their scoring chances in Saturday’s gam (It’s also where a small chunk of their overall shots come from). That might have been just a by-product of frustration with where the game was, but these little plays on the margins have made a pretty big difference for the Canes this year.
I never know if stuff like this is planned or not because the Hurricanes are a team that thrives when things are chaotic & they just play off their instincts rather than what the coach says. Still, it was the only area of the game that they had some control over on Saturday & it was enough to get them a point. A similar thing happened in Thursday’s series finale, a game where the Canes were heavily outplayed and outchanced 24-13 according to Natural Stat Trick.
They got an offensive zone draw late in the third period & sent out a broken line of Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter & Warren Foegele. Three guys that usually don’t play together, but Staal takes most of the important draws while Nino & Foegle are two guys who will at least create a good chance close to the net even if they don’t always finish it. Meanwhile, Columbus is stuck with an inexperienced player in Kevin Stenlund taking the draw (59 NHL games and I’m pretty sure a good chunk of them weren’t at center). Carolina had very few things go right for them in this game, but a lot can change with just a few passes.
There’s a few subtle things that happened here that made this work. First, watch Laine immediately go to the point to challenge Hamilton. Fair assumption, seeing how that’s what Hamilton will do the second he gets the puck 8 out of 10 times. He goes D-to-D to Slavin on the left boards. Bjorkstrand goes out to challenge him. Again, it’s the right idea from Bjorkstrand here. The Hurricanes turned a couple of faceoff wins into a shooting gallery in two goals, so they can’t just collapse to the net like they did on Saturday. Slavin continues to creep down the boards while Foegele takes Seth Jones to the net with him.
This is where the goal happens.
Slavin waits just a split second & hits Niederreiter with a great cross-ice pass to give the Hurricanes the late lead. They have luck and Alex Nedeljkovic to thank for getting them to this point, but they had a chance to slow the game down & took advantage of it. Credit it to Slavin making a heads-up play or Brind’Amour for the makeshift line combo. The impact was pretty big regardless & got Carolina at least a point in a game where the Jackets outplayed them.
Games like this have been my favorite part of watching the team this year. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching the games where they dominate, but there is just something nice about seeing them pull out victories when they don’t look their best. Whether it’s the power play, goaltending or taking advantage of a couple broken plays, winning in this fashion is what separates this Carolina team from others & it’s been very fun to watch. Being able to thrive when things go off-script is going to help them more in the playoffs than any trade deadline pickup.
…although they still might need one of those if Teuvo Teravainen isn’t coming back anytime soon.