When he was coaching the Carolina Hurricanes - in either of his two stints behind the bench - Paul Maurice often referred to the first game after a long road trip as one of the most difficult games that a team can win. Often, it’s the result of heavy legs combined with the requisite distractions that returning home entails, things that you don’t have to worry about when you’re city-hopping and living out of a suitcase.
The Hurricanes mostly did everything right to prove Maurice’s maxim incorrect on Saturday, save for the small matter of actually winning the game. The Florida Panthers stole the game thanks to rookie goaltender Chris Driedger and a few ill-timed Carolina penalties, ending the Canes’ point streak at seven straight games with a 4-2 win.
Even Superheroes Have Bad Days
Petr Mrazek has been as automatic as a goalie can be at home this season, but he was due for an inevitable clunker, and that bill came due on Saturday.
The Hurricanes allowed just two scoring chances in the third period, yet both of them ended up in their net. The first of those two was a comedy of errors. From three penalty killers dropping below the goal line to Mrazek getting way too aggressive on Jonathan Huberdeau in front of the net, gifting Huberdeau a wide open net, it was a textbook example of how not to kill a penalty.
The second, a partial breakaway by the suddenly-scorching Noel Acciari, left Mrazek in the Statue of Liberty pose, a look you never want to see from your goaltender. It was the second goal that Mrazek surrendered from a breakaway, joining Evgenii Dadonov’s first-period tally, but it was the Acciari goal that really broke the back of the Hurricanes, who had pulled back to within 3-1 and were pressing hard for the next goal.
They eventually got that second goal, but by then they were trying to climb a mountain, one that was ultimately too high to summit.
What Time Is It?
When Bill Peters was coaching the Hurricanes, after a bad game he’d inevitably make a comment about how the Hurricanes failed to start on time. After the trip they’d been on, you could forgive the Hurricanes for not knowing what time the game actually started.
Tripp Tracy made the point during the first period that the Hurricanes were playing their seventh straight game in a different time zone. Even by the standards of the NHL schedule monkey, who assigns games seemingly at random, that seems to be a bit ridiculous. The Canes’ journey took them from Eastern time (Minnesota at home) to Mountain (Edmonton), Pacific (Vancouver), back to Mountain again (Calgary), Central (Winnipeg), Mountain for a third time (Colorado), and finally back to Eastern when they returned to Raleigh.
Let that sink in: there are four NHL teams located in the Mountain time zone, and the Hurricanes visited three of them on their road trip, none of them consecutive. And, for that matter, Saturday’s game was functionally like another road game, since the Hurricanes go right back out on the road to visit Toronto on Monday, return home for Christmas, then head to Madison Square Garden on Friday. (December’s jet fuel bill is going to be bonkers.)
While their play was seemingly unaffected at a macro level, what with their team Corsi and scoring chances sitting at 70% at 5-on-5 and an expected goals percentage of 65% in all situations, it was the little plays that cost the Hurricanes, ones that could easily be explained by mental fatigue. Jordan Staal was standing by looking at the play on Huberdeau’s goal, which you can see above. Jake Gardiner tried to feather a pass that was intercepted by Brian Boyle, who found a streaking Dadonov for the opening goal.
Now, obviously we’re nitpicking a bit here. No team is going to play a perfect game, and the Hurricanes have built enough more than a little goodwill with how they’ve played in the past two weeks to tolerate a dud game. Still, you can bet that when the Hurricanes gather for practice today, there will be more than a little video review to remind the team that there are things they can control, and mental sharpness is one of them.
[Requisite Gwen Stefani pun]
Erik Haula looked like he didn’t miss a beat after being sidelined for more than a month. While he didn’t score, he made his presence known on his very first shift, when he went straight to the front of the net and nearly scored. He went 10-for-15 in the faceoff circle, and his combination with Ryan Dzingel and Martin Necas looked every bit as dangerous as it had earlier in the season, when it was the line that carried the Hurricanes offensively.
Must score on that one Marty. Nice pass by Haula btw, he's been incredible after coming back from injury! pic.twitter.com/1vMFKsnNUS— NecasDAILY (@NecasDAILY) December 22, 2019
(The comment, incidentally, is correct: Necas has to score there. It’s right in his wheelhouse, and if he does, the Canes never go down by three and chances are we’re not breaking down a loss today.)
It’s so nice to see the Hurricanes give players a chance to rest and heal properly, after years of seeing players return at 70% and inevitably go back out injured again. Haula got a few days of practice, was matched with linemates he knows intuitively, and stepped right in like he had never left the lineup. Proper management of injuries has been a welcome development across the NHL in recent years, and when you saw how well Haula was playing against Florida you can see why it’s so important.
We’ll get a good sense of whether Saturday was a hiccup or the start of a trend on Monday in Toronto, when the Hurricanes face a Leafs team whose new-coach bounce has mostly tapered off but remains quite dangerous. The last time the Canes and Leafs met at Scotiabank Arena for an afternoon game just before Christmas, Scott Darling surrendered a snowman. Here’s hoping this one goes a little more according to plan.