It’s like watching a kid learn to ride a bike, start to get the hang of it and make it about 30 yards straight with a triumphant “I did it!” right before they forget to pedal and inevitably spill over the side.
The Carolina Hurricanes took said spill in the third period for the third consecutive game in their defeat at the hands of the New York Rangers yesterday, but for a brief moment it seemed like they were finally past whatever has been holding this team back since Thanksgiving.
And I think that is what makes this losing streak feel so much worse; it’s the fact that the Canes have shown that they are capable of some great hockey, even in these losses, but they just can’t seem to keep it consistent through the final 20 minutes.
Defensive coverage responsibility remains an issue
This is going to cover a large facet of yesterday’s shortcomings. It feels a bit like beating a dead horse by now, but somehow this horse is still kicking. On two of the Rangers’ goals—Grabner’s and Kreider’s first, to be specific—the Hurricanes missed defensive responsibilities on multiple occasions within each play.
Here’s a refresher on the Grabner goal:
Seems like an odd-man rush where Viktor Stalberg just gets beaten to the net, right? Not quite.
Actually, Michael Grabner was not even Stalberg’s mark—he was the responsibility of Joakim Nordstrom. And that’s where the breakdown occurs.
Noah Hanifin’s pinch on Jesper Fast in the neutral zone was marginally ill-advised, but given the presence of Nordstrom as a supporting forward, he can get away with it.
However, as the support, Nordstrom has to recognize that he is now responsible for Hanifin’s defensive duties, which means that he must cover the center passing option (Grabner). Instead, he neglects to notice that he is the last man back, and gets caught puck-watching by going to Brady Skjei, who is already being marked by Matt Tennyson.
As you see in the video, the speedy Grabner wheels past Stalberg (who, again, was not responsible for Grabner in the first place) and receives an area pass from Skjei in the slot. 2-1 NYR. Nordstrom’s fault.
But the missed defensive coverages didn’t stop there. Here’s Kreider’s go-ahead goal:
Just pause that video the second it starts. Count the white sweaters that are at or below the hashmarks. I count all five Hurricanes playing dangerously low in their own end.
But five players being close to the goal is good defense, right? Again, not quite. We’ll start by discussing the forwards on this play. Bill Peters’ may have a variation that he prefers, but in most cases, a wing’s responsibility is to cover the opposing defensemen, while the center helps out down low.
Phil Di Giuseppe has some cause to be creeping low as he is trying to give a stick to Justin Faulk, but Jeff Skinner has no reason to be chasing Kreider out of the corner, as he has just given him a passing option by leaving Dan Girardi clearly open for a shot from the blue line, which he takes. The rebound is then shot under Leighton by an unscathed Derek Stepan.
Okay, pause it again.
See how the puck is waiting to be taken by literally anyone? And see how the only players moving their feet are wearing blue? That’s bad. All five Hurricanes are caught puck-watching (I’m sensing a theme here...).
Skinner, who left his mark to cover Kreider with such vigor, is now on the opposite side of the net as the goal-scorer.
Victor Rask, who should have been covering Kreider the entire time, seems to not even know the puck is there, despite the fact that Kreider is flying past him towards it.
Faulk is tied up behind the pads of Leighton.
Hainsey is still working on getting to Stepan, who doesn’t even have the puck anymore.
And seemingly the only guy who could get to Kreider is Di Giuseppe, who doesn’t have a stick anymore. 3-2 NYR.
Yeah, there’s some bad luck on both of these plays. If Fast doesn’t make a gorgeous feed to Skjei, the Grabner goal doesn’t happen. And maybe if Faulk’s stick doesn’t fail him, he clears the rebound away from Stepan and Kreider’s tally never makes it to the scoreboard.
But, the goals happened. And they could have been prevented not with some better luck, but with better awareness and hockey sense. The good news is, Jeff Skinner and Joakim Nordstrom are smart players, and they have smart coaches.
So by now, there’s no doubt they know that if 53 stays on Girardi, his shot never gets through in the first place. And if 42 takes a look up as he retreats defensively, he recognizes that he is the last man back and clogs the center lane so Grabner doesn’t get his chance.
But these defensive breakdowns have been costly, and in order for them to be “learning experiences,” there needs to be some learning involved. So please, Hurricanes, we’re begging: stop puck-watching, and cover somebody who is open.
The good news is that Carolina scored two goals in this game, which is more goals than they scored in Boston. But two is not going to be enough against a team like New York, or any other strong candidate for the playoffs. The Hurricanes need to learn to capitalize on their chances if they want to be successful.
After each goal, the Canes could have built momentum, and perhaps added even more goals. Instead, they seemed to relax their forecheck and sit on their laurels in a tied game. Even after the marathon shift from Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, when the puck was in the NYR defensive zone for five minutes, the Canes gave up a similar scenario in their own end.
When Carolina was winning, they played a stifling, aggressive style in all zones and on all lines, allowing them to build confidence and momentum with time in the offensive zone and numerous scoring chances. Now, they’re allowing easy breakouts and being beaten to the puck regularly in their own end. Step one to turning this around is returning to the aggressive style that produced such great hockey during the homestand.
Play the whole game
As mentioned before, this was Carolina’s third consecutive game in which they did not win the third period. In two of those games, both against the Rangers, they gave up the game-winning goal in the third period. And while yesterday may not have been a one-goal loss, it carried the familiar sting of one.
Falling by just a single goal (or two) has been a trademark of the Hurricanes for the past few years, and each year we all wonder what could have been had they just scored one or two more goals in five or six games. Now, four out of their last five losses have been by one goal, and it’s not insane to wonder if this rough stretch will be the where the last few points needed to make the playoffs were left behind.
It’s a well known fact that Carolina is actually a decent team statistically, but they’ve been victim to poor goaltending and scoring woes over the years. Nothing is more representative of those two things than losing by a goal. The difference in the Hurricanes versus the Penguins/Capitals/Rangers/etc. is that the other teams find ways to win these one (or two) goal games, whether it’s a clutch late-game goal or a miraculous game-saving stop. And most importantly, when those teams do lose a close game, they don’t let them snowball into more losses.
Moral of the Story
A loss hurts, and dropping two in half a week two the same divisional opponent hurts more. But, the Hurricanes now get a chance to come home and try to regain some of the swagger they had in mid-November.
They have much to work on, and if they don’t sort out their defensive responsibilities soon, it could be a long season. But like I said, they are smart players and have smart coaches. Chances are that we see a different Hurricanes team take the ice against the Lightning today.
And for what it’s worth, the Canes do still have a five-game home winning streak alive.