So, new plan: 82-game home schedule. Deal?
The Carolina Hurricanes’ win over the Tampa Bay Lightning may have been just their first win in four games, but it extended a winning streak at home to six games. And while that probably seems like a consolation prize for a team that remains barely afloat at hockey .500, it’s actually an important trend to consider.
When Bill Peters arrived as head coach, he cited his areas of focus as dominating puck possession, moving the puck through the neutral zone quickly, and becoming a stronger home team.
The first two of those have been known traits of Carolina since last season, but despite the team’s winning home record for each of the past three years, they haven’t been able to make use of a true home-ice advantage.
But Sunday night saw an energetic crowd and a team that clearly fed off that energy. And with that energy comes wins, and wins mean new things to talk about besides poor defensive coverage and spotty goaltending.
Ward regains poise
No one was more impressive in this win than Cam Ward. Phil Di Giuseppe and his moment of redemption in OT after a blown open-net chance in the third period were a strong storyline, but #30 stole the show, and the game, for Carolina.
As always, the biggest focus for Ward is to “be quiet,” as he puts it. That means no unnecessary movement—as seen last Tuesday in New York—and limited rebounds. Undoubtedly, Ward’s performance last night was one the veteran can be proud of.
He made saves that weren’t always flashy—although the leg save on Joel Vermin was particularly impressive—but instead were confident and sure-minded saves. His lateral movement was smooth and fluid, but not overly so. He did not overcommit to shots from outside and was able to control where the rebounds went, and make follow-up saves to those that went to a Tampa Bay stick.
Most importantly, he was once again the reason they were in the game instead of the reason they were down by one or two. The former of those two options has been the norm for Ward over the past month, though his last few starts have seen him play shakily. Nonetheless, he has earned the expectation that he will play well in a given game, and returned to form effectively last night.
When Ward plays “quiet,” he plays confident, and the team follows suit. A confident team is a dangerous team, and is a likely one to win. Ward now has his second 1-0 shutout of this season (and sixth of his career), which truly exemplifies his ability to outduel other goaltenders at times and can only up his confidence from here.
Penalty kill comes up huge
Killing five penalties in any game is impressive, but including a killed 22-second 5-on-3 with 6:44 remaining in the third period moves that resume into the top tier of the top tier of penalty killing performances.
Of course, you can’t get any better than being #1, and the Canes remain just that after Sunday’s performance with a 91.3% kill rate. Not to mention, they put up 5 kills against the League’s top power play. No easy task for any team, especially one missing its top penalty killing skater in Jordan Staal.
But as usual, the very best player in shorthanded situations has to be the goalie, and it was against the Lightning. Ward stood tall, and his players in front of him did the rest. The aggressive neutral zone stack worked perfectly at the blue line, and the speedy Lightning forwards were held up, and often offsides, at the blue line.
The defensive zone plan also worked well, save for an issue that I will get into in my next segment. The Canes were active with their sticks, and often managed to poke the puck away from unsuspecting Tampa Bay players looking to go cross-ice as they love to do.
The penalty kill took a slight hit in the past week, but should be flying high after a strong performance against the best PP in the League. Provided they can keep their confidence and motivation up, the Hurricanes’ PK could be the horse that carries them for the long run.
Shooting lanes—close theirs, open yours
Probably the most glaring issue that the Carolina skaters had was their shooting. Considering how much the offense has been hurting, getting shots to the net, not just attempted, is crucial in order to increase the scoring from the Canes.
In particular, the Hurricanes’ defense put a number of pucks into the shinpads and skates of the Tampa Bay wingers. Fortunately for them, they had a clinic put on by Victor Hedman of the Lightning. Hedman, who has been one of the League’s better offensive defensemen, made easy work of any shot block attempt that came his way (though they were sparse).
In that regard, the Canes still don’t have great coverage on the opposing defense in their own zone. When the other team has a weapon like Hedman on the back end, it’s especially crucial that a winger is at least prepared to haul himself to the blue line to disrupt the shot. If any defenseman is given extended time to load up and aim a slap shot, they will make you pay for it.
But players did sometimes get to Hedman, so how did he still get five shots through? Honestly, he just moved. And he didn’t have to move much; just one or two strides along the blue line and all kinds of new shooting and passing lanes opened up for 77 in white.
In contrast, Carolina’s defense was content to commit to obvious one-timers, which cost them multiple odd-man rushes going the other way. The good news is they got used to that and were able to shut down the chances for Tampa Bay, but the point remains that their shots are always better off getting on net.
So instead of winding up for 5-7 seconds, maybe fake the shot and skate towards the net with the puck. Draw some opposing defenders to you and see what opens up. If nothing does, circle back towards the blue line or dump it in the corner. But it all starts with moving their feet. If the Canes players (forwards too) can take a split second to acknowledge that the shooting lane they thought was there has closed up, they can recognize that there is a better decision to be made with the puck.
The Hurricanes are becoming a more confident team before our eyes. A solid win at home with a surprisingly populous and vocal crowd should be the perfect send off for the Canes on their west coast trip, and if they can come out of those three games with a couple of wins, they could start seeing more audiences like the one at PNC Arena last night. It would be fascinating to see what a consistently raucous crowd would do for a team that just needs a little push to be consistently great.
Next up are the Ducks on Wednesday, who got absolutely drubbed 8-3 by the Flames last night. The Canes should be prepared for a feisty Anaheim team, and can perhaps take advantage of some early mistakes by a team looking to bounce back from a bitter loss.