It was another week in which those of us in the Caniac Nation saw our team go head to head against some decidedly solid and challenging competition... and the Buffalo Sabres. It was also a week of healing for the team, as we saw Jordan Staal permanently back in the lineup, as well as the returns of Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, and John-Michael Liles from shorter absences. After a solid week all things considered, the 'Canes no longer sit in outright last place in the Eastern Conference. They now have the same amount of points as Buffalo, but the 'Canes have played fewer games, and thus are ranked ahead of them in the standings.
In the four games since the first installment of this series, the Hurricanes put up a respectable 2-1-1 record. On Sunday at home in a matinee against the Bruins, Anton Khudobin and Tuukka Rask both turned in stellar performances. Ultimately it would be the Hurricanes who sent their contingent of fans home happy, as Eric Staal came up big in the shootout with the winning goal. On Tuesday evening in the Music City, the Hurricanes turned in an extremely strong forty minutes against the Predators, only to see two different one goal leads evaporate in the third. Mike Fisher tied the game with just under ten minutes to go, and Roman Josi potted the winner with just under five minutes to play.
The Hurricanes would then turn their attention to their floundering rival from the north, the Buffalo Sabres. After coming out with a reasonably hot stretch in parts of November and the beginning of December, the Sabres have seen their lack of skill and horrific underlying numbers catch up with them. Coming into this contest, the Sabres had dropped nine of their previous ten decisions, and a confident Hurricanes team would prove to be a challenge they were not ready to handle. The 'Canes hit the Sabres with a balanced attack, as eleven of the eighteen skaters dressed recorded a point in the game. Leading the way were Ryan Murphy, Justin Faulk, and Jiri Tlusty, each with two points. Also notably impressive was the newly formed line of Jeff Skinner, Riley Nash, and Alexander Semin, as they created a goal with a nice pass from Semin leading to a quick finish from Skinner.
Riding high off a 5-2 victory over the Sabres, the Hurricanes traveled west to take on a surging St. Louis Blues team coming in on a three game winning streak in which they had outscored their opponents by an astounding 20-4 margin. It was the Hurricanes, however, who would set the tone early in this one, as Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, and Eric Staal each found the back of the net to get the Hurricanes out to a 3-1 lead. Riley Nash reclaimed a 4-3 lead for his team after the Blues rallied, but Vladimir Tarasenko later tied the game and sent it to a shootout. It was, predictably, known shootout phenom TJ Oshie who would tally the winner for St. Louis, but the effort Carolina gave last night was impressive and worthy of high praise.
That's a basic recap of the week that was in Carolina hockey, here's a more detailed look at some of the things that stuck out upon further viewings.
The first thing I want to talk about is the game against the Nashville Predators. In this game, there were multiple interesting dynamics at play. After years of being a defensive powerhouse that had struggled mightily to produce offense, the Predators have changed the identity of their team completely. Barry Trotz had been the only coach the Nashville Predators organization had ever known, but this summer they cut ties with him and brought in a man we all are very familiar with in Peter Laviolette. General Manager David Poile adjusted his team's personnel to match Laviolette's fast, uptempo style. We all know the speed at which Laviolette likes his team to play. Skilled forwards such as James Neal and Mike Ribeiro were brought in and have thrived early on. The development of Filip Forsberg has provided Nashville with another legitimate high end scoring option.
On the other side of things, Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters has been forced to install tight defensive structure due to the injuries to some of the key members of his forward core. This has resulted in the Hurricanes being a team that plays extremely similarly to how the Nashville Predators did under Barry Trotz in the days in which they were undermanned up front. The characteristics of this type of team mainly feature a combination of strong forechecking and pressure on the puck movers most of the time, but very passive play in the neutral zone to make it hard for the other team to utilize their skill when the opportunity arises. The Carolina forecheck was very strong all night on Tuesday, and there were multiple instances where the game set up properly for the Canes to align in a neutral zone trap. That's what I want to emphasize from the Canes' play from the Nashville game.
Here's the Nashville defender preparing to start a breakout. Watch the fresh Hurricane forwards apply tough pressure and make it very difficult
Here's Nash applying very good pressure.
I think this is Terry here to intercept the poor pass that Nash forced. Just a really good example of how quickly a properly executed two man forecheck can lead to a key change of possession and allow you to set up on offense when the opponent was supposed to have the puck.
Rinne here out to play the puck with support from Ryan Ellis and the other defenseman who will try to move the puck first.
He moves the puck up to the left wing where Dwyer and Bellemore converge on him to apply pressure.
Bellemore engages the Nashville forward in a board battle. Dwyer is behind him in support, and McClement is converging as well. Malone slides over to the right point to cover for Bellemore should things go awry. Good positioning and responsibility all around.
With the Hurricanes having so much support around Bellemore, the Nashville forward decides to send it down. They will now attempt to reverse the ice and allow Ryan Ellis, one of the league's premier puck movers, to coordinate the breakout.
The Canes again do a good job of hurrying over. Nashville was hoping they could beat the 'Canes to the other side and have an easier go, but the wall of Hurricane forecheckers will have none of it.
The Hurricanes don't allow Ellis to skate up the ice, which is good, but good positioning from another Nashville forward here allows Ellis to find a lane for the breakout pass, BUT
Pat Dwyer steps into the man with the puck and jars it free. This is a real gutsy play from Dwyer, and it worked fantastically. A great example of aggressive forechecking.
Despite this, the loose puck rolls back to Nashville's left winger. Malone does a good job of not giving up on the play and pressuring him. Very, very alert play from Hainsey to rush back into the neutral zone, as you'll see here:
Hainsey intercepts the errant pass from the Nashville player and the Hurricanes regain possession and get ready to go back to work in Nashville's zone.
The fourth line of Brad Malone, Jay McClement, and Pat Dwyer has been much improved after a rough start to begin the season. They scored against Philadelphia; they scored against Boston, and I think this is a great illustration of the little things they've finally started to do right lately. It's very encouraging to see. The miracle save by Rinne's ankle on Gerbe came off a forechecking induced turnover as well. Later on I'll take a look at a great forechecking play that turned into an immediate chance from a more offensively oriented line, but first I'd like to show you a quick example of the Hurricanes employing the neutral zone trap and "clogging the neutral zone", just like Nashville used to do so often.
My apologies for the somewhat poorly timed screenshot, but right before the pass was made by the Nashville defender, Gerbe was passively standing at the red line waiting for the play to come to him, with the other four Hurricanes standing right in front of their blue line. It's a smart strategy against a high flying offensive team like Nashville (man that felt REALLY strange to type). Limiting the ease of their zone entries can only serve well for your defensive goals as a team.
Here's another look at a more action-oriented example of passive-aggressively clogging the neutral zone. The Canes here aren't entirely letting the Nashville player walk through center ice, but they're using their positioning to strictly limit his options as he approaches the blue line. Here he has no choice but to dump the puck in, which is exactly what the Hurricanes wanted.
Let's take a look at a nice forechecking play from Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, and Alex Semin against Buffalo.
Victor Rask is seen here applying pressure to the Buffalo defender trying to move the puck out. Alex Semin is in the right circle, and Jeff Skinner is off screen in what appears to be a textbook 1-2-2 forecheck.
Buffalo reverses, and the Canes' forwards adjust accordingly. Semin now steps in as the F1 with Rask and Skinner waiting to see what happens. Semin beautifully steals the puck, and...
He hits a wide open Victor Rask with a nice pass, and Rask and Skinner now have a 2 on 0. Great effort from Semin to beat out both defensemen on his own and recognize that the Buffalo forwards weren't supporting their defensemen well, thus allowing this easy scoring chance.
Good recoveries from the Buffalo defenders make this tougher than it should have been. Rask hits Skinner with a nice pass, but Enroth explodes over to make a gorgeous pad stop on number 53 and keep the score tied for the moment.
This kind of quality forechecking is not something we've seen from the Carolina Hurricane teams of recent history. Muller tried to implement an aggressive forecheck, but it was so disorganized that the only players who really could execute it effectively were Jordan Staal and Nathan Gerbe. Now, it seems like every line the Hurricanes have are equipped mentally, physically, and strategically to handle and pull off an aggressive forechecking system with a reasonable amount of success. It can not be overemphasized how impressive the structure that Bill Peters has this team playing with is. Ever since the 08-09 team, Raleigh has seen only teams that are disjointed, unorganized, and ultimately inept in the neutral zone and their own zone. Their record doesn't show it, but this is a smart team that is playing at a reasonably high level every night. The low goals against, strong penalty kill, low shots against, and possession numbers truly do bear that out. Reasonable minds can differ on whether winning games or losing games to improve draft position is what's ultimately best for this franchise, but I think everyone can be pleased with the improvements we've seen in general quality of play.
Let me know in the comments what you think about the Hurricanes play on the forecheck and in the neutral zone.