What if I told you (extremely 30-for-30 voice) that the Carolina Hurricanes are - what’s this? - winning hockey games despite playing something far from their best hockey?
The Canes have needed to put wins on the board no matter how they came, both to hold off a surging Canadiens squad and maintain their grip on the first wild card spot. And they did it this weekend, somehow. The power play is right back to being a waste of two perfectly good minutes. The team’s top center is not himself. Calvin de Haan can’t avoid high sticks, even with the presence of a full-face cage.
And yet, here we are on Monday morning talking about a team that took four points from a weekend back to back, eight out of 10 possible on home ice during a five-game homestand. They’re a few days, maybe a week, away from the magical X next to their names. Luck, finally, mercifully, is on the Hurricanes’ side.
The Good: The Training Wheels Are Off
At some point Andrei Svechnikov was bound to be placed on a top-two line. The injury to Micheal Ferland in late February forced the issue, and ever since Svechnikov has taken flight.
The high point, last night’s overtime winner notwithstanding, might have been Saturday’s win over the Wild. Just look at the masterpiece Svechnikov painted in just over 14 minutes of ice time:
Early in the year, it was assumed that for the Canes to be successful they’d need to get 15-20 goals each out of Svechnikov and Martin Necas. Necas has been a non-factor at the NHL level this season, by design, and yet here we are, with Svechnikov winning last night’s game with his 20th. He’s the fourth player since relocation to hit 20 goals as a rookie, a feat most recently achieved by Sebastian Aho two seasons ago. (The others? Jeff Skinner and Shane Willis.)
He’s trusted enough that he’s on the ice late in games with his team facing an extra attacker. He’s gotten through his mid-season swoon, and has emerged on the other side as the Canes’ most dangerous offensive player. I mean, look at this chart. The dark blue X near where the lines cross marks the point where he joined Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen, and ever since it’s been total domination.
The Hurricanes needed production from somewhere, what with Ferland now over a month without a goal and Aho only tallying three points, all assists, since March 9. They’ve gotten it, and then some, from Svechnikov. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Aho carried the Canes on his back to get to this point, but it looks like it might be the rookie who gives the team the final shove over the line.
The Bad: The Same Old Song
“Decline the penalty!” Man, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that in the last 20 years.
The thing is, it’s so freaking true. The Canes’ power play was, to put it politely, abhorrent this weekend. Here are the heat maps from the two games.
Yowza. I mean, you almost have to try to be that inept. One shot from below the circles in two games?!
Something isn’t right, and the reading here is that it has something to do with number 20. Sebastian Aho hasn’t been himself lately; he’s a step or two slower to loose pucks than normal, he’s taking a split second longer to take a shot, and he’s not driving play the way he usually does. His expected-goals chart tells the story: it’s been a two-week lull for Aho offensively.
Is he hurt? Is he just wearing down after a season carrying the team, in large part, on his shoulders? Who knows - it’s the NHL in March, after all, so no one’s going to let anything on. But the Canes are going to be short-term visitors to the playoffs without a functioning power play, and they don’t get one of those with a below-par Sebastian Aho conducting the orchestra.
The Relief: Timing is Everything
Pretty much everyone (outside the Carolina locker room, anyway) had marked down Thursday’s loss to Tampa as a scheduled loss. In the grand scheme of things, a loss to the Lightning wouldn’t matter all that much, as long as the teams around the Hurricanes cooperated and dropped a couple points here and there to play along.
And then a funny thing happened: with the exception of the Blue Jackets, no one cooperated.
Everyone around the Canes in the standings has gone on a run to an extent over the last week. The Canadiens, in particular, have suddenly caught fire, earning 7 of a possible 8 points since last weekend. It would be the worst possible time for the Canes to hit the skids, because the consequence of failing to keep up with the Joneses in late March is being on the outside looking in.
Which made this weekend absolutely critical. The Canes couldn’t afford to leave any points on the table, both from a practical point of view and from a philosophical one. If the Canes are going to be a playoff team, they were going to have to earn their way there, and that meant winning by any means necessary. There was going to be no backing into the postseason.
The standings remain uncomfortably tight, but now the Canes are helped by the fact that there simply aren’t many games left on the schedule. Their magic number is down to 10. They won’t be able to clinch a spot before this weekend (and even doing that will likely require a sweep of the home-and-home with the Capitals) but time is running out, and if the Canes can keep their foot on the gas over the next week, they’ll probably be in with two or three games to spare.
You’ve heard it said before that playoff teams find a way to win. The Canes have done that, and their reward is tantalizingly close.