Another day, another test for the Carolina Hurricanes’ young defense. And yet another passing grade for Faulk, Slavin, Hanifin, and Co.
The Canes blueliners stood tall against one of the leagues highest-scoring offenses (yes, the Maple Leafs are an offensive powerhouse, check it out. Also, this.), and Cam Ward continued his impressive play to (mostly) stonewall the Toronto attack.
And still, there were more underlying narratives woven throughout the Hurricanes’ fifth consecutive win.
Hurricanes PK Steals the Show
When you’re good, you tend to get lucky, and vice versa. The Hurricanes’ top-ranked penalty kill was victorious over the Leafs’ 9th-ranked power-play, and even managed to put a shorthanded goal on the board. But it plenty of skill and a bit of good fortune to win the special teams contest—and the game—and those two things were particularly present on Viktor Stalberg’s game winning goal.
The luck involved in this play is Elias Lindholm’s play to block the airborne pass, though that does take quite a bit of hand-eye coordination in itself. But the fact that it bounced directly in front of him, ready to be played to Stalberg, is certainly a fortuitous bounce.
However, wade through the puck luck and over-committed Leafs power-play unit and you’ll find the reason the Hurricanes are the best penalty killers in the league, and the reason Toronto went 0-for-3 on the power-play last night.
The 1-3-0 stack that the Hurricanes run in the neutral zone is positively stifling at their own blue line. Having three players stretched across the line forces the oncoming players to work to the outside lanes, where they are far less dangerous.
Also, the puck carrier is forced to pick a side around the first player, which allows for a quick adjustment from the remaining three defenders. The only real ways to beat this are to skate through cleanly, which the Hurricanes have done a wonderful job of stopping, or to dump the puck in.
The Leafs tried different tactics to beat this trap throughout the game, but in this instance, Tyler Bozak goes with the “try to chip it softly past and see what happens I guess” method. The problem with that is the skill of the penalty killers. Lindholm is able to block the passing lane, gets a good bounce, and sends Stalberg onward to the game-winner.
The beauty in this stack approach is that it keeps the opponent out of the zone entirely for the most part, but even when the Leafs (and past foes) got into the Canes’ zone, their aggressive play style continued to take away time and space.
If you read our preview of the Leafs before last night’s game, you know that the Hurricanes PK vs the Leafs PP was something to pay attention to last night. Not only did Carolina stop one of the top 10 power-play units in the league, but they also managed to win the game by scoring while being a man down.
Obviously shorthanded goals cannot be expected every night, but continuing the good habits they have clearly picked up from shorthanded situations—i.e. this stack at the blue line—will lead to nothing but great things for the team.
What a far cry this game was from some of the first few we saw from the Hurricanes this season. From getting leads just to lose them, to giving up the first goal just to battle back and win a tough road game, this team has clearly found themselves along the way.
It speaks volumes that, when Jake Gardiner opened the scoring for the Leafs, it didn’t feel like the Hurricanes were doomed to implode. Knowing the Leafs’ sturdy offense and how they tend to pile on the goals could have incited some anxiety in Canes fans, but seeing the team in red’s response—maintained offensive zone time and a barrage of shots on Frederik Andersen—was a calming force and instilled some confidence in Carolina.
The collapses of the early season were often chalked up to this being a young team with quite a bit to learn, and it seems they have done some of that learning after all. No matter who you play, winning road games in the NHL is not an easy task. Winning road games after going down early is even more difficult. But the determination and confidence that the Hurricanes exhibited was markedly different from the flustered team we saw earlier, and shows how much this team has grown in a short amount of time.
Time will tell if the Hurricanes can maintain this sense of poise and confidence, but for now it seems as though Bill Peters and his staff are pushing the right buttons to get this youthful team to believe in themselves and trust his systems, regardless of the state the game may be in.
Party like it’s 2006
Cam Ward is undoubtedly the catalyst of this five-game winning streak. The veteran goalie has been much maligned over the past few years, and deservedly so, but seems to have regained some of his athletic, determined style of play that made him so successful. His change of equipment could have a fair bit to do with his improvement, but regardless of the reason, it is clear that he is playing with belief in himself and his ability to be a #1 goaltender in the NHL.
Last night was no different. Even despite giving up the first goal to Gardiner, he stayed calm and quietly put on quite a show, making a total of 25 saves, including more than a few on the talented Mitch Marner. Ward earned second star of the game honors for his performance, and given his current resume, it seems like we can continue to expect such accolades for #30. (Sidenote, is he on the fast track to being a star of the month?)
Moral of the Story
Is it a bit much to be so excited about a win over Toronto? Traditionally, no. But given their current equivalence to Carolina in the standings, and their rank as a typically overwhelming offense, I’d say this win is one to relish for all Canes fans and players.
The suffocating penalty kill the Hurricanes’ currently possess is a highly underrated tool, and it will be interesting to see how it continues to fare against such high-powered scoring offenses in the Eastern Conference. Next up is a date with the Canadiens in Montreal on (American) Thanksgiving Day.