The Hurricanes had another strong home performance to stretch their win streak to three games, and much of that is thanks to a strong, smart defensive effort late in the game.
Here’s the telling stat about it: five shots on goal in the last twenty minutes. One shot every four minutes. Must be lonely out there, Cam Ward.
Well, it would actually be unfair to say Ward didn’t have to do any work, but he rarely was forced into the late-game theatrical saves that he and Scott Darling faced too often earlier in the season. (More on them in a second.)
I think I could count on one hand the amount of times in the third period that it felt like the Hurricanes were testing their luck in the defensive zone: a cross-ice pass by Montreal allowed through by the goalie crease, though it led to no shot on goal; an instance of Canadiens traffic leading to a tough pad save for Wardo; and a weird defensive method by Jordan Staal, who dragged the puck across the goal crease with Canadiens nearby, and didn’t even clear after that fear-inducing tactic.
If that’s the situation that we deal with every night, I will gladly sign up for that viewing experience. It was almost completely stress-free and led to the first victory I can celebrate in my new Jaccob Slavin jersey (wow, the new jerseys are even more comfortable with a win).
But looking back on recent history with tie games or leads in the third period, things often seem to get a lot more testy than they did with the Canadiens. Any true Caniac, though, knows that no third-period lead will ever truly feel safe.
The Hurricanes, however, clearly passed the eye test last night in the last twenty minutes, with the puck constantly in the offensive zone or being corralled in and passed around D to D. Justin Faulk looked much more comfortable and “in it” than he’s been much of the season, and he and Trevor van Riemsdyk combined for seven blocks to keep pucks off the net. Dahlbeck took Montreal to the boards hard. And not a single defenseman took the night off.
However, there is one Hurricanes defenseman who actually could be negatively affected by the strong Carolina defense last night: Haydn Fleury, who was once again a healthy scratch. Klas Dahlbeck, who has started the last three games in Fleury’s place, has posted a +2 in that stretch, during which the Hurricanes allowed only four goals total. I don’t expect Peters to keep him out forever, but it does potentially signal a cut in playing time for the youngster.
But having too many options is better than having limited options, and when you’re winning, it’s hard to complain.
Which brings us to the goaltending situation. The Canes are suddenly blessed with a reliable backup goalie, and it’s becoming apparent that the fact that his name is Cam Ward and not, like, Gord something-or-another - or, literally, anything else - is clouding the perception of just how rare and meaningful that situation truly is.
Remember 2008, when a last-day loss to woeful Florida knocked the Canes out of the playoffs? Even league-average goaltending from backup John Grahame would have given the Canes the extra point or two that proved to be the difference. Or 2011, when the Canes were again the first team on the wrong side of the cut line, this time by three points? Justin Peters was nothing special. In both seasons, Ward was left to fight through slumps with no safety net, and he just kept being thrown out to the wolves every night because the Canes had no better options.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2002-03, when Kevin Weekes wrested the starter’s job away from Arturs Irbe, to find the last time that a Hurricanes backup notably outplayed the erstwhile starter. No one is expecting Ward to unseat Darling in the long term, but the fact that the Canes can ride Ward’s hot streak while allowing Darling to rediscover his game is a monumental improvement over what has long been the Canes’ Achilles heel. Ward wasn’t afforded the same luxury in previous seasons, and the points he’s accumulating now are ones the Canes would have kicked themselves for losing in years past, ad nauseam.
The road to .500 will be a tough one, with matchups against the Penguins and Blues up next, but if the defense plays Sidney Crosby, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn the way it did the Canadiens last night, Carolina’s confidence could skyrocket as we approach the second half of the season.