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By the Numbers: Let’s Talk About the Defense

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Carolina’s defense has come to be perceived as the strength of this team

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s now taken as a given that the strength of this Carolina Hurricanes team lies in its defensive unit, and with guys like Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin on the roster, it’s pretty hard to argue with that.

While that was true from November on last season and was certainly true for the first several portions of this one, it hasn’t been the case as of late.

It’s time to face up to the fact that this team’s defensive play has hit a rough patch.

According to corsica.hockey, from the beginning of this season to the Christmas break, the Hurricanes surrendered just 2.37 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Since the Christmas break, that number has ballooned all the way to 2.72. That may seem like a relatively small difference, but it really isn’t.

That 2.37 number would rank the ‘Canes 9th in the NHL in the stat right now. Whereas the 2.72 marker would have them all the way down at 26th in the league.

For a team with goaltending as questionable as Carolina’s, that is simply not a recipe for success. The team’s 9-10-0 record since the Christmas break is reflective of that.

Combining the struggles on defense with the struggles in net has led to utter disaster in this time frame. Since the break, the Hurricanes have held their opponent to fewer than three goals just 6 times in 19 games.

By comparison, in the 19 games prior to those 19, Carolina held their opponents to fewer than 3 goals 13 times.

The only thing that has kept this team’s playoff hopes afloat have been an uncharacteristic uptick in terms of offensive performance.

When it came to expected goals for per 60 minutes, the Hurricanes’ pre-Christmas break marker of 2.54 would tie them with Los Angeles for 10th in the NHL over a full season, which is obviously above average.

But since the break, they’ve posted an astonishing 3.06 xGF/60. Over a full season, that would have them first in the NHL by a long shot. Pittsburgh’s full-season mark clocks in at 2.97. The next closest team is Toronto at 2.90. The Hurricanes full-season effort has them at third in the league at 2.73. That’s how small the number of teams that can come anywhere close to that 3.00 neighborhood is.

While that improvement in terms of offensive performance is all well and good, two things are quickly becoming clear:

  1. It has come at the expense of the defensive identity that got this team into the playoff picture in the first place.
  2. For the Hurricanes to be a winning team as currently constructed, offensive performance can not come at the expense of lockdown defense and possession-centric hockey.

With the performance of Cam Ward slipping as his workload increases and without any form of adequate backup goaltending appearing to be on the horizon, Carolina will need to help Ward out by limiting the amount of high-quality chances that take place in front of him.

The fact that Carolina would be 10th in the NHL in xGF/60 had their defensively successful style of play been maintained proves that there is enough offense to win games when they play that way.

And that’s if the better record itself isn’t enough to convince you of that.

It’s hard to say what the cause of all of this has been. One possibility is that the increased difficulty of the schedule of late has caused the ‘Canes to face some tough offenses that they weren’t encountering as much before.

It could also just be that several of the team’s important defensive pieces have just happened to hit lapses in their respective games at the same time.

Whatever it may be, given the team’s track record of sterling defensive play under Bill Peters, I wouldn’t expect it to persist for very long. However, the ‘Canes don’t have much time to right the ship and get back to their winning ways if they want to find their way back into the playoffs.