The Carolina Hurricanes’ horrific 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets last week has been written off as an anomaly. In many ways it was, as the Hurricanes responded to win their next two games, both on the road. But some of the defensive breakdowns that led to those eight goals against have continued.
The biggest difference between the Canes victories in March and their 8-1 humiliation has been goaltending. Earlier this week, our Andrew Schnittker broke down how the tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have carried Carolina into playoff contention. Against Winnipeg, McElhinney wasn’t his sharpest and the scoreboard reflected that.
There have been three main areas of defensive weakness that have plagued the Hurricanes: the allowance of breakaways, over pursuing backchecks, and puck watching.
Mrazek made plenty of timely saves in Colorado on Monday night, including this one. Justin Williams loses Colin Wilson in the neutral zone and Justin Faulk fails to recognize the odd man situation, giving Wilson a clean cut breakaway. Mrazek stands tall, protecting a one goal lead in the third.
Here, one flip pass beats everyone as Brett Pesce loses an open ice battle with Rocco Grimaldi and Mrazek is forced to use his now patented poke check to save the day.
In Florida on March 2nd, Evgenii Dadonov raced through neutral ice on a breakaway only to be shut down by Mrazek. It’s a breakdown that has become too common. The Hurricanes forecheckers give Dadonov too much space early, allowing him to pick up speed. Haydn Fleury miscalculates his step up and is taken out of the play. For his part, Trevor van Riemsdyk is inexplicably stretched outside of the dots in the neutral zone, leaving far too much open ice in the middle and forcing Mrazek to make a breakaway save to preserve a third period tie.
One of the things fans have come to love about this particular iteration of Hurricanes hockey has been the work ethic. This is a team that undoubtedly works hard and often times has to in order to keep pace with more skilled opponents. But working hard isn’t enough. This team also needs to work smart and too often in recent weeks the Canes have been all effort but no brains, especially on their backchecks.
Mrazek’s most miraculous save on Monday night began due to an ill advised pinch by Brett Pesce. Justin Faulk does well to force Colin Wilson to shoot on the two-on-one. Nino Niederreiter does a great job on the backcheck, but instead of stopping in front of the net, he over pursues the play and winds up below the goal line. With Faulk taken out of the play after leaving his feet and Niederreiter behind the net, Wilson has a golden second opportunity after a feed from Carl Soderberg. Mrazek comes up large, and Niederreiter’s over pursuit becomes a moot point.
In Boston, Dougie Hamilton is beaten in the neutral zone. As he races back to the net, he gets caught puck watching (more on that in a minute) and Lucas Wallmark checks his man back to the net. Both Hamilton an Wallmark do well to get back, but over pursue and fail to stop at the net, instead winding up below the goal line. This gives the two Bruins they should be covering high quality chances that McElhinney fends off.
One of the most glaring concerns is the tendency of the Canes to puck watch in their defensive end. Too often over the past three weeks, the Hurricanes have been caught too focused on the puck carrier and, as a result, losing their defensive assignments.
It was evident in the loss to the Jets. Here Nino Niederreiter gets mesmerized by the puck carrier in the corner. In the process, Niederreiter’s mark, Ben Chiarot, finds open ice in the high slot and makes no mistake with his chance.
Ten minutes later, four Hurricanes defenders were caught watching the puck, letting one pass beat them all for a Nikolaj Ehlers goal. Brett Pesce engages and loses a board battle with Kevin Hayes. Jaccob Slavin and Sebastian Aho each follow Jet forward Kyle Connor behind the net placing two Canes on one Jet. If you’re a math major that means there is at least one Jet unmarked. Neither Hurricane communicates the obvious danger, instead opting to stare at Hayes.
Justin Williams is along the wall expecting a breakout pass, but once it is clear the Jets have won possession the board battle, Williams continues to gaze at the play below the goal line and fails to find a defensive assignment. Ehlers, unmarked, blasts one by McElhinney.
On a night where you lose 8-1 those pucks wind up in the back of your net. But three days earlier in Boston, Greg McKegg let his eyes wander to the puck carrier and his mark, Brad Marchand, gets a Grade A scoring chance. Fortunately, McElhinney stopped not only the first attempt, but the follow-up as well.
In Colorado, it was Mrazek’s turn to bail out the wandering eyes of Jordan Staal, Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. Bonus points if you notice Andrei Svechnikov lose his man while glancing at the puck carrier.
The Hurricanes have gotten away from their normally sound defensive game, but their goaltenders have been bailing them out. These are pucks that could, and probably should, wind up as goals against if not for Mrazek and McElhinney. But if the breakdowns continue and the goalies aren’t on their “A” game, there could be more 8-1 embarrassments in store in the final 13 games of the regular season.