It was another week in which our beloved Hurricanes dropped more games than they won, but as has been the case quite often this year, the team gave its fans plenty of positives to draw from their play on the ice. Time and time again in what is now a nearly halfway completed season, the Hurricanes have turned in an effort worthy of victory, but have ultimately fallen short on the scoreboard. That theme continued once this week, as the Hurricanes started off by thoroughly outplaying a very good Montreal Canadiens team. The 'Canes delivered Montreal a drubbing on the shot clock, putting up a 29-19 advantage in terms of shots on goal. Carey Price would have none of it, however, as the gold medal winning goaltender was in stellar form in Raleigh on Monday night, and the Canadiens wound up taking a 3-1 victory sealed by a late empty netter.
In my opinion, this was one of the team's better performances so far this season, and there was no shortage of quality scoring chances generated by the forwards in the offensive end. There were two in particular, created by the line of Jeff Skinner, Riley Nash, and Elias Lindholm, that stood out as especially threatening. This line composed of this young trio saw some good success toward the end of last season, and they again showed flashes on Monday night. The chemistry they have is quite visible on the ice, as it was on Monday, but it is also quite evident in the underlying numbers as well. So far this season, Jeff Skinner has posted a 52.4% on-ice shot attempt ratio at even strength. An easier way to refer to this statistic is to call it the "corsi share". Skinner's most common line mate at even strength this season has been the young, emerging Swedish two-way center Victor Rask. However, their underlying numbers suggest that the chemistry between them may not be where it needs to be in order to justify them playing together so often. Skinner's corsi share without Rask is 56.4%. Rask's corsi share without Skinner is at 57.2%. This is not in any way a knock on either of these players, as they are both positive possession players who drive play well on the whole. Anybody who has watched this team this year and followed the numbers will tell you that these are two good players, but for whatever reason when they are out on the ice together, their mutual corsi share drops to a substandard 47.6%. This lack of chemistry certainly does not appear to be an issue between Skinner and center Riley Nash, as their mutual corsi share is a very strong 58.6%. This number is an improvement from each player's individual corsi share when the two are apart.
All that being (possibly unnecessarily) said, here's an example from the contest against Montreal of the chemistry that can be seen between Skinner, Nash, and Elias Lindholm.
I think it's very much worth noting here that the Canes' forward line is out against the Canadiens defensive pairing of P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, as well as their forward line centered by Lars Eller. This trio typically faces tough minutes against the opponent's top competition, with occasional help from center Tomas Plekanec, though he's been utilized in somewhat of a more offensive role this year. Anyway, here Skinner is beginning to go to work against Subban below the goal line. Lindholm is drifting to the left wall, while Nash is waiting out in front. This is a pretty interesting set up at even strength. Typically you don't see right wingers, such as Lindholm is acting as on this line, setting themselves up on the left wall at even strength. That is typically saved for overload formations on the powerplay, but here the Canes very effectively utilize a sort of overload tactic at even strength. I obviously can't say whether it was intentional or not, but watch how well it works out.
Skinner won the initial puck battle with Subban, and a cluster ensued in front of the net. The situation ended with Lindholm whiffing on a shot and deciding to retreat back to the half wall with the puck. In this frame he's on the process of sending a pass down to Skinner behind the net. Note Nash setting himself up in the soft spot of the Canadiens' defense.
What you're about to see is a highly impressive piece of playmaking from Skinner. This is an aspect of his game I find to often go unnoticed. This is probably because he is usually the designated goal-scorer on his line, and thus any plays he creates for his teammates are less likely to translate into goals, as anyone he is playing with is likely a less capable finisher than he is himself. The quasi overload here has resulted in all three forwards being on the left side of the rink. With their operating as a sort of triangle, and the only defenders inside it being #79 Markov and #20 Malhotra, other defensively talented players such as #76 Subban and #81 Eller have found themselves to be irrelevant to the play. There isn't a thing either of them can do to stop this chance, short of Eller stepping in on Nash. In this instance, however, Nash has quietly positioned himself again in the soft spot of the defense, and he's outsmarted Eller to the point where a usually heady player like Eller does not recognize him as a threat.
In the last frame, Skinner had his head down and was just receiving the pass from Lindholm. As you can see, it takes just one elapsed second for Skinner to spot Nash in the slot, and fire a perfect backhand pass to Nash's tape to give him a gorgeous, uncontested chance on Carey Price. Like I said previously, it's a very impressive piece of playmaking from Skinner. Nash gets two cracks at beating Price, but the elite netminder ably stops them both and prevents the Hurricanes from grabbing an early lead.
This play was an example of what the Skinner-Nash-Lindholm line was able to do when they got set up in the offensive zone on Monday night, but they also were noticeable on the rush, in transition, and even in the defensive zone. Here's a look at one sequence that exemplifies all three of those.
Lindholm here dumping the puck in. For this play, the pairing the line was matched up against happened to be #77 Tom Gilbert and #74 Alexei Emelin. While generating a scoring chance against these two is a less daunting task than it is against the Markov-Subban pairing, it's still an impressively swift transition from "puck at the red line" to "puck would be back in the net if Carey Price wasn't incredible".
Lindholm dumps it in, and Gilbert attempts to play the puck. He'll look to possess it, and skate it around the net to reverse it back up the ice. Skinner applies the pressure here, but he's not the one who forces the eventual turnover.
As Gilbert curls around the net, Lindholm hustles down and surprises him with a strong piece of forechecking. You'll also notice in this frame that Nash is once again fantastically positioned in the soft spot of the defense. This is already a recurring theme here, and my guess is that the more and more one watches #20 play, the more this theme continues to be a trend. Whether this is due to the fact that teams are yet to recognize him as the decent scoring threat he is, or whether his hockey IQ is just much better than most fans could have reasonably hoped for, I don't know. I do know that I am not going to question it as long as it continues, as it's rather impressive stuff that one notices when they slow the game down and look at it this way. Anyway:
Lindhom successfully withstands Gilbert's check and slides the puck to Skinner. Malhotra has completely abandoned his responsibility in the slot and goes to pursue Skinner behind the net. Emelin too forgets about Nash and slides over to keep Skinner from doing whatever it is he anticipates Skinner doing. The combined actions of these two leave the ever-fantastically-positioned Riley Nash, well, fantastically positioned.
Skinner again with a really nice example of his underrated playmaking ability. He threads the needle tightly through two defenders and perfectly hits the tape of his intended receiver. Nash again gets a decent shot off, but again Carey Price is up to the task.
Here's a transition play from a couple shifts later. Nash is defending the blue line from an attempted zone entry from (I believe) #26 Sekac and (definitely) #15 Parenteau. The guy who is probably Sekac carried the neutral zone pretty well, until he tried to dish over to Parenteau on the wall. Nash reads this play like a book and jumps in to intercept the pass.
Nash intercepts the pass, and just like that, he's turned defense into offense for his team. He sends a nice pass down the boards that results in this shot opportunity on the rush from #53:
Skinner missed wide with this particular shot, but anybody who has watched young Jeff Skinner for really any time at all could recognize this type of scenario as exactly the type he occasionally scores goals from. His well above average wrist shot and quick release have fooled many goaltenders into surrendering a bullet over their glove side shoulders and into the net. Though this was not the case here, if Riley Nash can continue to make smart plays in the neutral zone that lead to looks like this for Skinner, that could only be a good thing.
After the tough luck loss on Monday, the Hurricanes traveled north to face another very strong team in the Metropolitan division-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Though the quality of the opponent was similar, the story of the game was not. The Hurricanes were squarely outplayed at the Consol Energy Center on Wednesday night, and they ultimately got the result that befitting the effort they gave. While I didn't break down any of the goals from the Montreal game, here I'll exclusively look at the three goals scored over the course of the 2-1 defeat the 'Canes received at the hands of the Pens. It was the Hurricanes who struck first on a nifty play off the rush by what was their first line on this particular evening in Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal, and Elias Lindholm. Here's a closer look:
It's a very simple three-on-three at this point. Eric Staal is on the left wing. Jiri Tlusty is driving the center, and Elias Lindholm is the one who will enter the zone with control down the right wing. For Pittsburgh, #58 Letang has Staal, #16 Sutter has Tlusty, and #47 Despres has Lindholm
This is really poor defending from Pittsburgh. Look at how much time and space Despres is allowing Lindholm, and look at how much space Letang is allowing Staal. What they're showing here is not exactly a recipe for a successful rush defended and counter attack gained, but that's exactly what we want to see. Watch as Staal recognizes the lack of respect Letang is giving him and makes himself available for a nice pass from Lindholm with a nice cut toward the center.
Letang does not seem to recognize the fact that Sutter is doing a fantastic job of taking Tlusty out of the play, as for some reason he feels the need to support Sutter in defending him. This leaves Eric Staal *wide open* in the slot area. Lindholm quickly recognizes this, and Eric receives the pass while nicely continuing his cut toward the middle. The fact that he continued moving to the right is very crucial to the eventual goal, as you'll see.
Here's the how the play looked as Eric shoots. In the last frame, he was still to the left of the left hashmarks, but now his skates are perfectly lined up with the right hashmarks. Fleury was clearly unaware of just how much momentum Eric had built up with his cut across the ice, as you can see he's attempting to get over to stop a shot that isn't there, and in turn has left the middle-left portion of the net open. Eric, not so coincidentally, deposits the puck right there.
While we've seen what the Hurricanes have done well offensively in these two particular games, it unfortunately cannot be all sunshine and rainbows for those of us in Caniac Nation. The Penguins ended up deservedly winning this game 2-1, and their two goals came about as the results of masterful displays of puck possession in the offensive zone. When a mediocre defensive team, and often even the best of defensive teams, is forced to defend for long periods of time, holes are eventually going to open up. That is exactly what happened to Carolina on these two decisive Pittsburgh goals.
Here's the first goal, a nice wrist shot by Chris Kunitz. I'm not going to comment in between each frame, but what I want you all to notice is how long Kunitz floats around in the soft spot of the Carolina defense seemingly without being noticed. It's very similar to what I pointed out from Riley Nash in the Montreal game, but with years of goal scoring experience and being a crafty veteran, Kunitz has the upper hand in converting on his opportunity. (Also as good as Cam Ward's turnaround has been this year, realistically he still isn't exactly Carey Price, so there's also that.)
To be completely honest, I'm not entirely sure who exactly is to blame here. Faulk is in the low slot preventing an even better potential look for Kunitz. Rask is trying to prevent the puck from reaching #25 Ebbett on the half wall. Hainsey did a reasonably good job of keeping the play around the perimeter. I guess the blame if there really is much of any would fall on Skinner, and even he was doing his job for the most part in guarding the right point. What I'm seeing is that in the fourth frame he should have seen Kunitz accelerate lower in the slot. Maybe he could have anticipated that Kunitz was preparing to receive a pass and fire, and sped up himself, but I feel like that's asking a lot in the span of literally half a second. Probably one would hope Rask would be able to break up the pass from the boards to Kunitz, as he seemed to have ideal positioning to do so. Regardless, you've got to tip your cap to Kunitz either way. He exhibited great patience, stayed in a great position, and got off a really tough shot that wound up in the back of the net. Good play all around by Pittsburgh's #14. The winning goal from the Penguins was somewhat similar from Brandon Sutter to what Kunitz executed here. Since I'm already a solid 2,500 words into this post, I won't go into great detail about what went wrong with this one, but I think these two frames are pretty funny and very telling. The thing worth noting is the extreme lack of attention paid to Sutter in the first frame compared to how desperate our defenders are to block his shot in the second frame:
Quite the drastic turnaround in two seconds, huh? But I guess that is what having the puck on your stick will do to you. Again, if you go back and watch this goal again, you won't find strikingly terrible defense from the Hurricanes, but rather a lot of little things that went wrong that maybe could have ultimately prevented the Penguins' winning goal from happening. I think being able to effectively defend players that don't have the puck is one of those not-so-little "little things" that end up deciding a lot of games and ultimately, separating great teams from good teams, good teams from average teams, average teams from bad teams, and so on. Take this game for example. The Hurricanes gave up only two goals to one of the highest scoring teams in the league, but both of the goals came when they failed to anticipate where the puck was going to go next.
It wasn't all "what-ifs" and "so close's" for the Hurricanes this week. The team followed up the losses on Monday and Wednesday with a Friday performance at home against Philadelphia that could only be classified as strong. By now, you've all seen Brad Malone's first period first goal as a Hurricane, which featured his impressive sniping ability. What you may have missed, however, was a downright fantastic play by Zach Boychuk in his own zone to break a long streak of offensive zone time for the Flyers and create the 2-on-1 that led to Malone's goal. He was rewarded with a very well deserved assist for his efforts on that one. Go back and watch that goal again, along with the 15-20 seconds that preceded it. Make sure to watch Boychuk closely, and I promise you'll be as impressed with his defensive zone breakup and spring pass to Malone as you already are with Malone's goal itself. It was really encouraging stuff to see from a Hurricanes fourth line that gets perpetually pinned in its own zone far too often.
If you've made it this far, thank you very much for reading! Feel free to share with me your thoughts, comments, and questions on this particular post, as well as your ideas and suggestions for future posts in this series. I'm totally new here, and I'm very open to hearing ways I could improve upon this. Thanks again, and I'll see you next week with more analysis and breakdowns on Hurricanes hockey.