The Hurricanes emerged from the All Star Break with a slate of three very difficult games on the docket. In true Carolina Hurricane fashion, the team pulled out three very different results from each respective game. With a national audience and arguably the Eastern Conference's best team in Raleigh on Tuesday, the stage was set for an embarrassing showing to come out of the matchup with the Lightning, but Carolina managed to do a masterful job of flipping the script on Tampa Bay.
The Hurricanes forecheck has been one of the team's strong points this year, and Tuesday night was no exception. The first goal by captain Eric Staal just seconds into the game came as a result of the Staal-Staal-Tlusty line doing an excellent job of creating a difficult environment for Tampa Bay's top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman to move the puck out of their own zone. Here's a look at what I mean:
Here's Victor Hedman swinging the puck around to the other side. He's trying to reverse the ice to avoid the pressure of the two Hurricanes forecheckers.
The puck finds its way to Steven Stamkos, who is then dogged aggressively by Jordan Staal with brother Eric in tow close behind.
Jordan pinches Stamkos off before he can get anywhere and gains possession of the puck. Note the good positioning of Faulk at the blue line and Sekera near the red line here. Even if Stamkos negotiates by Jordan there isn't much there for him at all.
Jordan steals and dishes to Eric, who then embarrasses the defenders with a good power move to the net and finishes off the play with a semi-accidental goal.
But they all count the same on the scoreboard, and just 22 seconds in the Hurricanes find themselves up 1-0.
Later on in the first period. The Lightning's potent young trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov nearly struck yet again to cut the Hurricanes then 2-0 lead in half, but Anton Khudobin was there to bail his team out. With the breakdown in Carolina's coverage that occurred here, his play is a great example of just how difficult it can be at times to defend against a combination of hockey sense, chemistry, and skill. Let's take a look:
Tyler Johnson sets the table at the point.
Johnson dishes to Palat and curls back. What this will do is create sort of a wheel. They'll utilize it to confuse the Carolina defenders and ultimately cause one of them to lose their man.
Johnson is almost back at the boards now. Palat instantly gave his pass from Johnson to the defender here at the Lenovo ad. Johnson is going to continue his route, then cut down toward the goal line. Palat is going to continue his drive toward the net down the center lane, and it will be he who loses his man, McClement in this case, to get the chance.
Shot at the net by the defender. Kucherov providing the screen in front of Khudobin. Johnson has made him available at the Pepsi ad in case the puck finds his way to him. Palat already has a step on McClement here, and...
That step on McClement turns into two or three steps as the rebound finds Palat's stick right in the slot. Khudobin makes a brilliant point blank save to preserve the two goal lead.
The Hurricanes would get another goal from Justin Faulk, followed by yet another tally from Jiri Tlusty. The four goal output against one of the league's premier teams combined with yet another strong performance from Khudobin would be enough to carry the Hurricanes to an impressive 4-2 victory in front of a national audience.
Friday night was a different story for Khudobin and a different story for the team as a whole. With the St. Louis Blues, another one of the league's top teams, in town, it was clear that another tough task was on its way. The Blues did a much better job of living up to their reputation than the Lightning did, however, as before plenty of fans had even taken their seats, the Blues held a 2-0 lead. Ryan Reaves struck first followed by a goal from captain David Backes, and Anton Khudobin was quickly lifted in favor of Cam Ward. It was barely Khudobin's fault though, as the team defense had faltered in front of him. The hook from Peters was far more likely intended to serve as a wake up call to his team than as an indictment on Khudobin's play. If it was a wake up call, then the message was certainly received. Ward was fantastic for the rest of the night. Justin Faulk struck yet again to cut the deficit in half, and Ryan Murphy picked up his first of the season on the powerplay to tie the game up in the second frame. Here's a really quick look at some of the good cycling work from the 4th line on Faulk's goal.
What's really impressive about this goal is the level of competition that the fourth line and top pairing managed to get it against. There are few better checking lines in this league than the one centered by David Backes with Alex Steen and TJ Oshie on his wings. Oh and the defensemen on the ice? Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Not exactly slouches.
Anyway, McClement gets the touch from Malone. Backes does his best to work McClement off the puck, but he can't. McClement forces his way to about the Michael & Son ad on the boards before firing a dart to Faulk at the point.
Faulk lets a well calculated wrist shot go. Brad Malone sets a fantastic screen in front of Blues goalie Jake Allen. There's no way this shot turns into a goal without Malone's work in front of the net here.
Allen never sees it, and Carolina's fourth line is responsible for a goal against St. Louis' first line. Boom.
The Hurricanes ultimately fell short in the shootout, but it was certainly a respectable effort on home ice against a great team. They responded to early adversity very well and wrestled away a point in the standings.
Last night, the Hurricanes traveled to the Big Apple to take on a New York Rangers team that has been very good, but has recently come across some major goal scoring issues. As I live in New York, I was fortunate enough to grab a ticket for this one at the last minute. Early on, the team came out with an absolutely inspiring effort. The first ten minutes of this game were everything we've wanted to see from this team under Bill Peters. The forecheckers gave the Ranger defensemen absolute hell in moving the puck out of their own zone, as there were multiple instances where the Canes actually managed to execute a line change while simultaneously keeping the Rangers stuck in the d-zone. The crowd grew frustrated with this as it continued, but they would soon have something to cheer about. A very poor exit pass by the usually excellent Andrej Sekera found its way right to Rick Nash who charged down the left side and beat Cam Ward with an okay shot that really should not have gone in. This was shortly followed by Justin Faulk getting absolutely undressed by Dominic Moore while the Hurricanes had a powerplay. Moore beat Cam Ward to stretch the Ranger lead to 2-0, and uncharacteristic mistakes from the Carolina top pairing was to blame for the early deficit. After the first period, the Hurricanes held a 23-12 edge in shot attempts at even strength and had generally dictated play with few hiccups. Unfortunately, Henrik Lundqvist was on his A-game and they could not find the scoreboard.
Then in the second period, a fluke play sucked the life out of the arena. After his goalie mask was inadvertently lifted by Ryan McDonagh, Henrik Lundqvist was hit square in the throat by a shot off the stick of Brad Malone. I have never heard an arena go as silent as Madison Square Garden did when their beloved King Henrik was down on the ice with his legs flailing in visibly terrible pain. Fortunately, Lundqvist was able to regain breath and decided to tough it out and stay in the game. This probably wasn't the wisest decision possible, but his courage was nothing short of admirable, and it was a big relief that the scary moment was not nearly as devastating as it could have been.
Lundqvist later tweeted this incredible image from his twitter account, and managed to display a good sense of humor about his misfortune.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>At least I saved it I'll prob stick to soup today, feel pretty good though. Thanks for all the well wishes! <a href="http://t.co/2xTTHVkTUA">pic.twitter.com/2xTTHVkTUA</a></p>— Henrik Lundqvist (@HLundqvist30) <a href="https://twitter.com/HLundqvist30/status/561949428307984385">February 1, 2015</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Malone would eventually score the Hurricanes' only goal on the night off a beautiful assist from Ryan Murphy, but Chris Kreider and Dan Boyle would add further tallies in the third period bury the team in red and white. The game was fairly evenly matched, and Lundqvist's gutty performance was far superior to one of Cam Ward's worst nights of the season, which was probably the ultimate difference in the game. The newly assembled Staal-Staal-Semin line was the Hurricanes best in my view, though I haven't had a chance to look over the numbers quite yet. Semin generated two very memorable chances that Lundqvist was square to the task for, and he managed to make a very nice save or two on Eric as well. The line of Gerbe, Rask, and Tlusty had quite a tough time establishing their game. Gerbe and Rask played the third period Ranger goals poorly, while Tlusty was more of a tough luck -2 on the night.
That is the week that was the last of January for the Carolina Hurricanes. The 1-1-1 record in the seven day stretch brought the 'Canes to an overall January mark of 7-3-2. Excellent to be sure, but not nearly enough to vault the team back into the playoff picture. For those interested in keeping tabs on the team's draft position, the team is currently 9 points ahead of Buffalo, 5 points ahead of the Oilers, and 2 points behind the Coyotes to put them squarely in the #3 draft slot if the season were to end today.