Who remembers watching the first few games of this season, where the young, upstart Carolina Hurricanes seemed ready to take the league by storm for a period or two before monumentally imploding?
Yeah, this kind of felt like that.
The Canes went up 2-0 in the first period, but were overwhelmed for the rest of the game. And worst of all, they looked like the Canes who started on that road trip. You know, the one that was still “searching for their identity.” That identity was found during their five-game winning streak, but now seems to have hidden itself away again.
Sure, they (the 4th line and maybe a few others) put up a good fight, but the game was lost by the team’s veterans. Justin Faulk, the lone NHL All-Star on the roster, looked utterly human on several plays for as fantastic of a player as he is. Ron Hainsey, the oldest player on the team, lost the composure that he has come to be known by at the pinnacle of the game. And Cam Ward, well, there will be words on him below.
With all that said, let’s examine why this game transpired as it did.
Cam Ward reverts to old habits
For as strong as he has been lately, it almost felt like this was inevitable, like the last 2 weeks were too good to be true. Ward did make some good saves, and showed glimpses of the poised and confident goalie we’ve been seeing as of late. But for the latter two-thirds of last night, he was the old Cam Ward.
Instead of “letting the game come to him,” he was floundering and finding himself out of position on multiple occasions. Instead of being the team’s best penalty killer, he was unable to come up with the clutch saves that he did against Toronto and Winnipeg last week.
To illustrate this, first take a look at Nick Holden’s initial goal for the Rangers.
Notice how Ward over-commits to Holden after the first shot comes back into the slot, and ends up sprawled out and reaching to try to make a miracle save. When Carolina was winning, Ward stayed home in his crease, so to speak. That’s not to say he did not come out to challenge the shooter, but he waited for them to make the first move.
Here, Ward is at the top of his crease to make the first save, but when the puck comes back out to Holden, Ward freezes. He gets caught too far out, and Holden is able to walk around the lunging goalie for an easy finish.
When Ward is playing well, he reacts to better face the angle of the shot. He does not reach or lay down, but rather he remains in butterfly position and retreats into the blue paint to more easily cut down the angle.
What I mean by that is that if a shooter is going to either side of the net, the goalie need only follow the lines of the crease, like an arch. Instead, Ward tries to follow Holden, which leaves the right side of his arch exposed to a player that simply goes around the straight line that Ward has created. If he follows his arch instead, Ward ends up in front of Holden’s shot, instead of beside it.
Ward was in decent position on the first shot from Holden, that much is true. But his inability to correct his positioning in time for the second shot cost him on this play, and left him flopping and reaching as we’ve seen during his rough stretches in past seasons.
Next, we have to look at the game-winning goal from Jimmy Vesey.
Again, Ward over-commits to a player in shooting position. He seems to have lost the sense of calm confidence that he was showing previously. He again ends up on his side, reaching out with his glove and paddle to try and block at least the bottom half of the net, which actually almost somehow works.
But instead, Rick Nash’s shot finds its way under Ward to the waiting stick of Vesey. If Ward remains in butterfly position, and pushes across the crease as he knows to do, Nash’s shot either gets harmlessly covered by Ward, or never even happens since Ward would be in position to make the save.
Obviously, this game was not lost solely by Cam Ward. But his play was noticeably different last night, and he needs to rediscover what made him one of the NHL’s stars of a couple weeks ago if the team is to have any sustained success. Instead of flopping around and reaching to make saves, Ward is better served by staying collected and positioned, and letting the shooter make the first move.
PK gives up another
The League’s best penalty kill unit gave up a power-play goal for the second consecutive game after killing 27 straight penalties, and their kill percentage dropped below 90 for the first time since the beginning of the season. Yes it was just one goal, and yes it was somewhat of a lucky bounce, but there is some cause for concern.
Carolina’s PK unit is known for its aggressive nature. But last night they lost touch with that nature. Obviously Cam Ward is a large part of the unit, as mentioned above, but the other four players on the ice need to rediscover what made their work so consistent before.
The neutral zone trap that Carolina normally runs was not as tenacious, and New York found success by either skating through or chipping the puck past the blue line and retrieving it before Ward could play it.
They also passed the puck around the Carolina defenders in their defensive zone with ease, opening up more shooting and passing lanes. Overall, the PK just looked tired. And considering that this unit has been probably the brightest aspect of the team thus far, seeing them struggle to maintain their reputation was disheartening.
If the Hurricanes want to have the kind of success that leads to a playoff berth, they need to maintain the areas of the game where they are strongest, like killing penalties, and rediscover them when they begin to struggle.
4th line finally coming into their own
I considered writing my third point about how Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey should absolutely shoulder a large portion of blame for this loss, but this can’t be all negative. There were some happy moments, like Viktor Stalberg scoring his 2nd and 3rd goals in two games (also his 3rd and 4th goals in five games), and really just the play of his line with Joakim Nordstrom and Jay McClement.
This trio, along with defenseman Matt Tennyson, has been creating chances throughout the past two games in particular. Stalberg has been the beneficiary most often, but McClement was able to get his first point of the season last night, and Nordstrom seemed to be playing with the confidence that earned him a new contract last year.
On a night when the Hurricanes’ veteran/top-line presence was minimal at best, having a performance from depth players like this can inspire those on the team who did not have their best night. Credit Ron Francis for signing Stalberg and even Tennyson, who seem to have found a scoring niche together, at least for now.
Moral of the Story
That game was, well, forgettable. But that’s not to say the Canes shouldn’t learn from it. Losing in this fashion should be another wake-up call to alert the young team to the fact that executing and working hard for a few games is not good enough. In the NHL, it is expected night in and night out.
The veterans on the team should step up and admit that they were not good enough. Faulk, Hainsey, and Ward know that they must be better. Even Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask, who did not necessarily play poorly, should, as captains, lead the charge to get back to playing how the team knows they can.
The bottom line is that Carolina lost their identity as a team last night, and now they need to find it once more. We’ve seen how long it can take to do that, but we’ve also seen—albeit briefly—how impressive they are when they play with tenacity, composure, speed, smarts, etc. They’ll get a chance to reclaim their reputation on Thursday in Boston.