This five-game stretch in between the All-Star break and Carolina’s mid-February bye week could end up being the make or break portion of the 2016-17 season, and so far, the Hurricanes haven’t broken.
The past week has been a convincing return to form for the Hurricanes, who entered the break losers of five consecutive games. Instead of trying to work from the goal-line out, they played loose hockey and tried to keep relying on outscoring teams like they did in the four-game win streak prior. Teams that play like that almost always regret it later on, especially teams that aren’t built to play like that.
Over the past three games, the Hurricanes have tightened up their team defense and they’ve reaped the rewards.
The next two games are big. Tonight, they look to get revenge against the Washington Capitals, a team they got blown out by during their five-game skid in late January. If Carolina has a chance of escaping the nation’s capital with two points, they have to do it by playing similar games to how they played at home earlier this week, limiting scoring opportunities and playing solid transition offense.
If they can pick up at least two of a possible four points against the Caps on Tuesday and the Dallas Stars on Friday, they should be in a good spot entering the bye week.
Here are some of my thoughts over the past week.
- A new top forward line has emerged for Carolina. Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, and Elias Lindholm have been the catalysts for offense up front and seem to be a perfect trio based on how they all play. This has happened often for the Hurricanes. A line will emerge and carry the workload, contributing three of four-point efforts for several nights, but they eventually fall off. Skinner, Rask, and Stempniak were hot in October; Aho, Staal, and Teravainen were hot in November; Skinner, Rask, and Ryan were hot in December; McGinn, Staal, and Lindholm were hot in January; and now we have Aho, Staal, and Lindholm. Hopefully, this trio can stick for a little bit and find ways to adapt once defense start focusing on them.
- Aho and Lindholm have been fantastic as of late. I harped on how great Aho is yesterday, so I won’t talk about him too much, so instead let’s talk about Lindholm. He was a member of that hot January line with McGinn and Staal and now he’s continuing to play the best hockey of his career with Aho on the opposite wing. He has 13 assists and 16 points over his last 14 games and leads the league in primary points/60 with 19 of his team-leading 20 assists being primary. He’s playing with the most confidence we’ve ever seen from him and he hasn’t shown any signs of letting up. Lindholm’s a dynamic playmaker and it looks like he’s finally realizing the top end potential that he boasts.
- This is also an opportunity for us to realize that not all player develop the same way. Skinner and Aho stepped into the league as teenagers and were near instant stars. Lindholm was rushed to the NHL by the former hierarchy of Jim Rutherford and Kirk Muller, as admitted by Ron Francis, and the Swede paid for that. That can ruin a career, and for a time it looked like Lindholm might be ruined by it, but now it looks like he’s back on track to being the player the organization hoped he would be.
- Which brings us to Noah Hanifin, who might be falling into the “rushed to the NHL” category. His situation was unique last year as a college player at BC, and there seemed to be the assumption from the get-go that he would be in the league immediately. His rookie year was fine. Hanifin had some issues at times and saw the press box, but that happens to a vast majority of rookies and young players in general. He learned from it and got better as the year went on.
- As of late, he has taken some huge steps back. He’s not playing smart, he’s turning over the puck, he’s failing in his own end, and it just doesn’t look like he knows what to do with the puck at times. His great skating acumen isn’t enough to make up for his deficiencies in other areas. Bill Peters said back in December that the then-19-year-old would see more ice time, and he did for a while, but now he’s back to playing minimal minutes. Hanifin differs from Lindholm in the fact that defensemen are so delicate and you have to bring them up the right way, that’s just how it is. You have a lot more leniency with forwards. I’ll have a full piece on Hanifin up on the site tomorrow.
- Cam Ward had a good week. He was marvelous against the Flyers and Oilers, allowing just one goal in each outing. He was a victim to turnover-caused odd-man rushes and a couple of pure snipes against the Islanders as he allowed four goals on 37 shots. He’s been great since the break, but the question of “is this guy really going to play 70 games this year?” still looms. Eddie Lack still hasn’t had a start since early November, and I’d be shocked if he is given the crease in Washington tonight. Maybe he gets the net in Dallas on Saturday, but that would only be to get him some game action as Ward will be well-rested after a three-day layoff. They need a backup goalie that they can trust, and it’s pretty unclear if Lack will ever be that guy.
- Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had another phenomenal week. They played a big role in Carolina’s thwarting of the Flyers on Tuesday and effectively shut down Connor McDavid on Friday. The duo was a combined plus-five against the Islanders and Pesce assisted on Slavin’s first period rocket that made it 1-0. Once again, we are reminded that there isn’t a player in this league that Slavin and Pesce can’t dominate.