For most of the season the Carolina Hurricanes have been doing just good enough to stay above the playoff cut line, despite their struggles within the Metro division and their unstable defensive play. Things were at a peak high coming off their west coast trip in mid-December but have sharply fallen off ever sense.
Game after game things seemed to continue to get worse for the Canes, all building up to what feels like a distinct tipping point last night. Not only did the Canes lose a 3-2 game to the Columbus Blue Jackets by allowing a goal within the final two minutes of regulation, but they also lost their All-Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a gruesome injury that will likely hold him out for a very long time. Could this be the breaking point for a season with so much promise?
The Questionable - Mrazek vs Reimer?
Going in to the back to back scenario we knew we would likely see both goaltenders this weekend. Both are coming off a fantastic weekend and even the Capitals game wasn’t much to blame on Mrazek. But at a certain point for an organization that prides itself on trusting analytics and numbers, you have to wonder why Petr Mrazek got the start last night over James Reimer.
Mrazek has been lights out at home but below average on the road this season while Reimer has been the complete opposite. Mrazek is now 4-6-2 with a .897 save percentage on the road this year while Reimer is 8-4-0 with a .919 save percentage. In such a crucial game on the road versus a divisional foe, why would you not go with the guy who the numbers say give you the best chance to win? Mrazek was by no means bad last night but he never made the save that you need a goalie to make in that kind of game.
Just as it is astonishing to see the Hurricanes’ record so far against the Metro, it’s just as equally astoinishing to see the home versus away numbers for the goalies. Mrazek clearly thrives at home and Reimer has been much better than Mrazek on the road. So why would you not go with Reimer last night and Mrazek tonight given the circumstances? It’s certainly a questionable decision to say the least.
The Bad - Continued Defensive Breakdowns
For the past few seasons Carolina has been touted as one of the best defensive teams in the entire league. The high-level play of Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton has spoken for itself and even the play of Brett Pesce has continued to be outstanding. However, there have been far more defensive miscues this season than we have seen in many years. Jake Gardiner has been a prime culprit of many of these mistakes but every single defenseman has been making them — even Slavin, who is known as Mr. Reliable.
Every goal the Blue Jackets scored last night displayed these defensive breakdowns, starting with the very first one. Joel Edmundson tries to make a play very early in the game resulting in Pesce being left to defend a two on one. A slight hesitation by Pesce as to how he was going to defend allowed Emil Bemstrom to get some space and that was all he needed to rip a shot past Petr Mrazek just 67 seconds in to the game.
After the Hurricanes came back to tie the game sending it to the third period at 1-1, Jake Gardiner got caught out of position and that allowed Cam Atkinson to score the go ahead goal. Gardiner has had a really bad season so far and it doesn’t help when he continuously puts himself in a position to fail. You would like to see Erik Haula provide more support coming back to break up the play but Gardiner simply has to be more sound defensively.
Cam scores in his return to the lineup! pic.twitter.com/5TAPwrf8lY— Columbus Blue Jackets (@BlueJacketsNHL) January 17, 2020
The game winner late in the third period was probably the worst lapse of all. Both Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk got focused on the puck and nobody covered Nick Foligno darting to the middle of the ice.
Every game these breakdowns are seemingly costing the Hurricanes points. The stellar defensive play of years past is gone and there has been no answer as to how to fix things. The loss of Hamilton means we will likely see even more of Jake Gardiner, which is a scary thought given his current level of play.
Don Waddell needs to seriously consider making a move to retool the defense before it’s too late. The Gardiner experiment has failed miserably, van Riemsdyk seems far from his Stanley Cup winning caliber of play, Haydn Fleury has looked okay when given a chance, but none of these guys are playing NHL level hockey right now. The team needs a physical stay at home defenseman who they can rely on to eat minutes and kill penalties while not costing the team with bad plays. What they have currently is more of a liability than help and it is showing night in and night out.
The Awful - Dougie Goes Down
The Hurricanes have been fortunate enough to not have many injury issues this season other than Jordan Martinook and Erik Haula both missing a run of games apiece. That luck may have run dry last night when Dougie Hamilton crashed in to the boards, causing his left leg to bend awkwardly beneath him.
Dougie Hamilton with a scary fall along the boards. His left leg bends... very awkwardly. He got off the ice putting no weight on his left leg. This doesn't look good. pic.twitter.com/4dGB2Gup3S— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 17, 2020
While no official word is out on Hamilton yet it doesn’t look like he will be playing any time soon. Rod Brind’Amour echoed that sentiment after the game by saying it “doesn’t look good”.
#Canes head coach Rod Brind'Amour on Dougie Hamilton's injury: "It doesn't look good, obviously."— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) January 17, 2020
For a team that is struggling defensively as it is, this is a massive blow. Hamilton is having a Norris Trophy-caliber season and has been one of the best players, if not the best, on the entire team this year. Any significant time without Hamilton will likely prove difficult to overcome for the Hurricanes.
The worst part of it all? The play should have never occurred because the Blue Jackets were guilty of a too-many-men penalty just seconds before the injury. But the referees didn’t call it despite calling a similar penalty on the Hurricanes earlier in the game.
Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella was recently fined after he went off on the officials when a similar situation caused them to lose goaltender Joonas Korpisalo due to injury after the referees failed to add time to the clock.
As has been mentioned multiple times, the officiating in the NHL seems to be getting worse and worse and now we are to the point that guys are getting injured as an unintended consequence of incompetent officiating. It’s a sad reality that just seems flat out wrong and for once it would be nice for the NHL to own their mistake and just say “yeah we screwed up, but here’s how we are going to get better”.
But for now all we’re left with is the Hurricanes All Star defenseman injured, with no repercussions.
Moral of the Story
It’s gut check time for the Hurricanes. Last night was truly a worst case scenario. They’ve proven time and time again they cannot win within the Metro and last night was a flat out demoralizing game. Losing one of your best players to a scary injury then blowing the game in the final two minutes against a division rival is less than optimal. We may get a Justin Williams return tonight or Sunday, but he won’t be a savior.
This team has to dig down deep if they want to return to the playoffs this spring. For the first time all year they are in danger of falling outside the playoff cut line while things continue to spiral downhill. They have an opportunity over the next month with 12 games against the Western Conference between now and the end of February. For all their troubles in the Metro, the West has been an area of excellence for the Canes. They absolutely have to build up some points before they get to March because the schedule over the final month is brutal and filled with games in the Metro.
The one piece of good news? The Canes can come back out tonight and get in the win column. They do not have to sit around and sulk for days, an opportunity presents itself against a Western Conference team to right the ship - at least temporarily. Will they come out and respond with a win? The answer to that question may tell us a lot about how the rest of the season will go.