Carolina’s quest for an 82-game season with zero regulation losses ceased on Sunday night in Winnipeg.
It was nice while it lasted, but now it’s onto the next challenge.
That has been the Hurricanes’ mentality through the first two weeks of the season. They’re focused on what’s most important: the present. They’re worried about the next goal, and making sure they score it. They’re worried about the next game, and making sure they win it.
This new team “culture” has led to early success for Rod Brind’Amour and his fourth-youngest roster in the NHL. If you take Justin Williams off the team, they become the youngest team in hockey.
Thankfully, Carolina’s new captain isn’t going anywhere.
The former 30-goal scorer for the Hurricanes en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup (and the year after) has turned into a very different player. But while he will, maybe, hit 20 goals this season, it could be argued that what he lacks in goals he makes up for with his ability to take this group of players and lead them.
From the second Justin Williams signed what many considered to be his “riding into the sunset” contract that marked the end of a great NHL career, the 37-year-old hasn’t stepped out of the way of criticism. He knows things need to get better here. He knows the status-quo is no longer acceptable for a team that hasn’t made the postseason since 2009.
The day he stepped back in the Hurricanes’ dressing room, he talked like he had been here for every brutal, painful year of disappointing hockey. Now, more than a year later, he has been put in a position to lead the way that he wants to lead.
So far, so good.
Williams and Brind’Amour are having/had illustrious playing careers that saw them play in storied hockey markets like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington. Yet, they both have a passion for this city and this down-on-their-luck hockey franchise. So much passion that they are willing to give everything they have in order to see it rise back to the level they know it can reach.
This team expects more out of itself. The players expect to win every night. The owner and the general manager expects them to win every night.
There’s a lot of work that still has to get done, but it’s a start. A really good one.
Sebastian Aho’s Week to Remember
Elite NHL center Sebastian Aho has arrived.
From the start of the preseason to now six games into the regular season, we have seen a lot of growth from the young Finn. The questions about his move to the middle have never been about his ability to win faceoffs, though it is worth noting that Aho has hovered right around 50% in the circle - not bad and not great. That’ll get better as time goes on.
The main concerns have been about the additional responsibilities that the center has and whether or not the 21-year-old could handle it all.
Well, he can. Moving forward, no one is allowed to doubt the abilities of this player, because his transition to be a center has gone better than anyone could have envisioned.
The points are stellar. He’s third in the NHL with 11 points. Beyond that, his defense and ability to drive play through the middle of the ice has been on full display.
Here’s Brett Pesce’s first-period goal against the Canucks on Tuesday:
This is an excellent example of how Aho has been playing an all-around game at center.
This whole things starts with an icing on Carolina. Aho is out there with Teuvo Teravainen and Warren Foegele, who had just gotten on the ice for Micheal Ferland prior to the icing.
Aho wins the defensive zone faceoff and the Canes clear the zone. Aho keeps a center lane drive from blue line to blue line and goes to the net right when he gets into the offensive zone. From there, he wins a battle for the puck behind the net and circles the puck low to high, where Teravainen makes a good play to get Pesce open for the shot, which finds twine through a screen in front by Aho.
On Saturday night in Minnesota, Aho took control of the game en route to Carolina’s come-from-behind victory. Mr. Pesce can thank him for this goal, as well.
Sebastian Aho. pic.twitter.com/C8kza5ARLh— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 13, 2018
This is one of those plays where you can just appreciate how special Sebastian Aho is. His skating has, perhaps, improved more than anything else in his game over the past two years. This is elite-level stuff from Aho, who burns Eric Staal at the blue line (granted, that’s probably not too difficult) and delivers a perfect pass to Pesce for the deflection goal.
In overtime against the Wild, Aho made an excellent play from his own zone that led to his game-winner.
He strips the puck from Zach Parise in the Carolina end, starts the rush, and finishes it with a cold-blooded snipe to give his team the win.
I could go on all day about how great he is, but I’ll stop myself for the time being.
The league took notice of his dominance and named him the NHL third-star of the week. Three goals and seven points in three games isn’t too bad, I suppose.
While there will still be some growing pains, I think Tom Dundon has his first line center. And he’ll have to pay him like one.
Former Flames off to Hot Start
The NHL’s biggest trade of the summer saw Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and the rights to unsigned Adam Fox go to the Hurricanes.
The general consensus on the trade: Carolina got the best player, therefore they won the trade.
That “best player” was Hamilton, but it’s been Ferland who has really been that guy through the first two weeks.
I really don’t know if there could be a more perfect fit alongside the two skilled Finns than Ferland. He really is as advertised: tough, gritty (not the drug-fueled Flyers mascot), and sneaky skilled.
Though, his skill really hasn’t been sneaky. It’s pretty clear that his 20-goal season with Calgary wasn’t just a fluke. He can make all the plays that he needs to, and his touch around the net is a big difference on that line.
To date, my favorite goal from the Aho line was the tally that gave Carolina a 3-1 lead against Vancouver.
Pump this directly into my veins. This Teravainen-Aho-Ferland line is a lot of fun. pic.twitter.com/kwmNQtBS0h— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 9, 2018
Teravainen controls the puck on the zone entry, Ferland reads him and follows up, and Teravainen gives him the drop pass. Ferland then goes to the net and follows the puck to set up the goal.
The quick one-touch pass from Ferland to Aho was a thing of beauty. That requires communication and timing, two things that line seems to already have in spades.
That trio has put together a solid 53.15% corsi rate, but they have a goal share of 83.3%. That’s awesome. At nearly 70 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, they’ve been on the ice for one goal against and five goals for. They might not be the three-headed corsi monster that Warren Foegele, Jordan Staal, and Justin Williams are, but they are extremely effective.
Hamilton’s start in Raleigh hasn’t been as boisterous as Ferland, but he has slowly started to settle into his role on the right side of the first defensive pairing.
There was concern from a lot of people (myself included) about the big right-handed blueliner’s usage in the first week but, over the past three games, we have seen Hamilton’s ice time grow. Against Minnesota, Jaccob Slavin (24:56) and Hamilton (23:10) were the team’s most-used defensemen. The following night in Winnipeg, they saw their ice time dwindle because they were used so heavily on the first half of the back-to-back, but they were still the most-used d-pairing.
As Hamilton’s role continues to grow, we’ll start to see the normal stuff from him - elite offensive talent and a shot that can rival any defenseman in hockey. Thus far, he has been reliable and sound. There have been a couple of iffy defensive plays that he’d like to have back, but outside of that, there’s nothing negative to really say about him right now.
Hopefully, he can continue to grow his game and get the offense we’re used to seeing from him. I don’t think that will be a problem, though. He’s the real deal in every way.
The real concern through these first six games has been the performance of the power play and penalty kill.
Carolina’s converting at a 9.5% rate on the man advantage (25th in the NHL) and are successfully killing 66.7% of their penalties (28th in the NHL). To tell the truth, they’re pretty lucky that the power play is where it is, given that 50% of their power play goals came at the tail end of the New York game on the empty net.
And by 50%, I mean one of the two power play goals they have scored.
I have a lot of thoughts on the power play, and maybe I’ll write something separate and more in-depth about it here soon, but there are a couple of big things that keep standing out to me.
For starters, and stop me if you’ve heard this before, they need to put bodies in front of the goalie at all times. Especially when you’re putting a point shot on net. Justin Faulk has taken about 7,000 power play shots in these six games, and precisely zero of them have been even relatively dangerous due to the lack of traffic in front.
You always know where to find Jordan Staal on the power play - in front of the net. He can’t be the only one, though. Valentin Zykov made it to the NHL because he did that. All the time. He didn’t lead the AHL in scoring last year playing like Sebastian Aho. He did so by planting his large body at the top of the blue paint. I don’t know if using him for 4:43 of even strength time and not using him on any of your power plays against the Wild (they went 1/9 in that game) was the best way to utilize his strengths.
Though, even beyond the power play, Zykov is in a weird spot right now.
They also have to be quicker and less painfully obvious when moving the puck. I could’ve predicted every single pass that was made on the power play against the Wild if I was watching the game while standing on Mount Washington looking through a pair of binoculars that I bought from Dollar General.
It’s been a problem but they are 4-1-1 despite those problems thanks to their downright dominant even-strength play. They’ve scored the second-most goals in the NHL with an awful power play, so it’s not all terrible. The lack of practice time as of late has been a contributing factor to the special teams issues, so the next week should be of great use for them.
We Have a Goalie “Problem”
When Scott Darling got hurt, Curtis McElhinney came in and added a layer of protection. Then, after he dominated the Blue Jackets in Columbus, he started to actually turn some heads.
He was in net for the Vancouver win, where he let in three goals, but two of them were deflected off of his own defensemen, so I’ll give him a break there. The Minnesota game wasn’t pretty, though. Four goals on 23 shots.
Petr Mrazek got the opening night start and was fine, then he had an iffy performance against the Rangers in Carolina’s 8-5 win. His real breakout game was the loss in Winnipeg.
He was outstanding. He matched everything McElhinney did in Columbus. He just didn’t get the three goals that the 35-year-old got.
Petr Mrazek with a phenomenal save on the 2-on-0 breakaway. WOW. pic.twitter.com/0P92avrndY— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 15, 2018
When Scott Darling returns, the Canes will have to make a decision on their goaltending. Do you carry three goalies and have them battle it out for a couple of weeks? I think that would be the smart decision.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to put a guy like Phil Di Giuseppe on waivers to make the numbers work or compensate for other moves, so be it. It’s more valuable to have confidence in your goalies at this point, and I’m not convinced that a team would actually put in a claim on Di Giuseppe.
The next few weeks will be big for all three of Carolina’s goalies.