Every sustained stretch of poor play will spawn debates over who/what is to blame. This time, the question revolves around Carolina’s injury-depleted blue line and injury-obliterated goalie tandem.
Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce, two of the Hurricanes’ top-three defensemen, are out for the regular season. James Reimer and Petr Mrazek, the goalie tandem that helped lead the team to strong playoff positioning through February, are both out and have uncertainty surrounding the timing of their returns (Mrazek did practice on Friday, though, which is good news).
At the deadline, Don Waddell and company added three big pieces (one of them hasn’t even played yet, though). Those reinforcements, paired with two NHL/AHL tweener goalies that the organization has faith in, were hoped to be enough to keep the club afloat.
So far, that hasn’t been the case and the team is falling down the standings. There’s still time to correct things, but that time is running out quick and this month’s jam-packed schedule will not be forgiving.
So, what’s the real issue?
Let’s take a look at the Hurricanes’ last three games since the trade deadline (I’m excluding the game against Dallas because multiple players were making their team debut and I want to be fair about this) and see what the real reason has been for the ugly goals against and the losses that keep piling up.
Colorado Avalanche, February 28 (3-2 loss)
You’ll notice a trend as we go through these games. It’s not just that the Hurricanes score first precisely zero times, it’s that they allow multiple goals against before they’re ever able to get on the scoreboard.
What makes the loss to Colorado so unique is that it was one player who scored the game’s first two goals. A player who hadn’t scored a goal in 35 games - Tyson Jost.
His second goal, the one that made it 2-0, can be attributed to a lack of awareness and execution by a young player in Andrei Svechnikov.
The Hurricanes won a couple of board battles here. Haydn Fleury won a battle to move the puck around the corner and Jordan Staal won a battle to chip the puck forward to Svechnikov, who had time and space to get the puck out.
The 19 year old sent a weak clearing attempt right on the tape of the pinching Avalanche defenseman, and from there it was a jailbreak.
That puck simply has to get out of the zone. There needs to be communication from Justin Williams, who has a clear view of the play and is the outlet option if Svechnikov needs it. Instead, Williams skates out of the zone and puck never had a chance of leaving the zone.
Jost is totally unmarked behind the Carolina defense and Anton Forsberg is left out to dry.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last mistake that led to a goal against. Late in the third period, minutes after Teuvo Teravainen scored his second of two goals and tied the game, things collapsed again.
The whole play started with Martin Necas not being able to corral a puck at the top of the circle. If he gets it cleanly, he springs Svechnikov out of the zone and everything is fine. That’s not what happened, though.
The puck wound up back in the Canes’ corner, and Jaccob Slavin and Gabriel Landeskog engaged in a board battle. Slavin’s stick got caught up in Landeskog’s legs, so he opted to drop his stick in order to avoid a potential tripping penalty.
This allowed Landeskog to then shake free as Slavin attempted to pick up his stick. The Avs captain had a wide-open passing lane to an unmarked Samuel Girard streaking down the slot - he was Svechnikov’s man.
It’s tough to blame Forsberg for much of what happened against the Avs. Every Colorado goal was the direct result of a pretty serious blunder. These are things that can’t happen, and it doesn’t matter who is in net.
Montreal Canadiens, February 29 (4-3 overtime loss)
Things didn’t improve north of the border, at least not in the first two periods.
After jumping out to an astounding 8-0 lead in shots just over two minutes into the game, the Canadiens eventually broke through for the game’s first goal.
Teravainen turned the puck over trying to clear the zone. Brendan Gallagher then retrieved the puck and waited for Tomas Tatar to get open on his one-time side. Brady Skjei pushed up on him, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Teravainen got lost in coverage, and Phillip Danault drove right to the net to beat Forsberg.
This goal was almost exactly like the one that Jost scored after Svechnikov couldn’t clear the zone. It’s really about getting pucks out. It’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. It needs to happen, but they failed to execute and then they failed to cover up for their mistake. You can’t win like that.
This next one is absolute doozy. I hope you’re sitting down.
Max Domi just scored to make it a 2-0 game. The Hurricanes had to get a grip quickly. They didn’t get a grip, by any means.
Svechnikov had the puck just inside the Montreal blue line. Now, he had some decent options, and most of those options involved him getting the puck deep into the Habs’s zone - via skating it in or simply chipping it to the end wall for Aho to chase.
Instead, he threw a blind behind-the-back pass to... someone? Teravainen was relatively close, but Danault is standing right in the middle of any sort of passing lane. Aho was on the move into the zone, presumably under the impression that Svechnikov would make a north-south play with the puck, not an east-west play, especially since he wasn’t facing him.
Danault stole the puck, got it up to Gallagher, and Montreal was already moving back the other way. This is where it got even more interesting.
Gallagher opted against a cross-corner dump-in since he is on the wrong side of the red line and he sees line-mates skating up and through the neutral zone. Instead, he just chipped the puck up into the air to where his teammates were going - practically an alley-oop pass.
Instead of playing the man, Slavin decided to leap into the air to catch the puck like Air Bud jumping over the offensive line to score a touchdown at the goal line in “Air Bud: Golden Receiver”, the sequel to the hit movie “Air Bud”, wherein Bud (the sports-playing golden retriever) takes his talents to the gridiron after a marvelous basketball career.
Looking back, I’m starting to really question Bud’s eligibility. He was, what, like 35 years old in human years? Someone should really look into that.
Anyway, Slavin missed the puck entirely. Tatar got control and sent a shot on net from a tough angle. The rebound kicked out and over Slavin’s stick and Gallagher ripped a slap shot by his outstretched skate and into the net.
Alex Nedeljkovic came into the game after that goal. Should Forsberg have had the third goal? Maybe, but considering everything that happened with Slavin on that play and the two layers of screens that were set by his own teammates, I’m having a tough time railing the goalie play.
The move was to spark a comeback, not to be an indictment on Forsberg. The Canes did come back to earn a point - their only point since the deadline.
Philadelphia Flyers, March 5 (4-1 loss)
18 minutes into the first period in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Hurricanes and Flyers were goalless. It was far from a perfect period from Carolina, but they were definitely in the game and competing well.
Then, for a few seconds, they lost that compete.
The puck got rimmed around the boards. Nedeljkovic came out to play it, but he missed. That really wasn’t a problem, though, because the Canes had two players in the corner to get it - Aho and Slavin, two guys who you’d expect to have the attention to detail to get possession of the puck in that situation.
Aho missed the puck, Slavin wasn’t in position to bail him out or jump on Scott Laughton, who came away with possession after the miscue, and Ivan Provorov suddenly found himself streaking down the slot.
His first shot went straight into Nedeljkovic’s chest. That should’ve been the end of it - a close call that didn’t come back to bite you - but Ned fumbled the puck right back out in front of him and Provorov followed up on his own shot to slide it by the rookie’s outstretched glove to make it 1-0 late in the period. Those late period goals really hurt, especially when they’re 100% avoidable.
The Flyers just absolutely cannot come away with puck possession in this situation:
When all else fails, though, you really need that save from Nedeljkovic or whoever is in the net. The Hurricanes didn’t get one, and that’s an obvious pain that comes with both of your NHL-caliber goalies being out of the lineup. Routine saves suddenly aren’t as routine anymore.
Let’s end it on the goal that made it 2-0.
Vincent Trocheck brought the puck down the right wing and tried to make a power move to the front of the net. He lost the puck, but his great individual effort seemingly had the Hurricanes set up to establish puck control in the offensive zone.
Trocheck looked over his shoulder, recovered the puck, and decided to try to make a play. He had two guys (Martin Necas and Skjei) at the top of the circles. The pass got put too far back, which allowed Laughton to swoop in and pickpocket an unsuspecting Skjei and push the puck right the other way with numbers.
Tyler Pitlick rushed down the right wing, forcing Haydn Fleury to make a decision - push up or strictly play the passing lane. Fleury pushed up, which didn’t render positive results. Pitlick snuck the pass by Fleury and onto the tape of Michael Raffl.
Raffl had a step on Skjei, who jumped into the rush on the other end and then got burned after Trocheck’s pass couldn’t connect, and the Flyers took a 2-0 lead.
Philly scored two more times in the third period, just 26 seconds apart, after Williams got the Canes on the board. Those goals were thanks to Skjei’s disastrous turnover in front and an errant pass form Teravainen to Gardiner that led to a failed breakout.
Wow, what a ride. Let’s talk about it.
There are a few things that stand out to me after going through that list of goals over the last three games.
For starters, the Hurricanes have been awful at both blue lines. They aren’t making smart plays at the offensive blue line, instead trying to do way too much in order to spark offense which has led to them constantly turning pucks over. On the other end, they can’t get pucks out of the zone. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to clear the zone that have been squandered.
Maybe it’s a product of poor execution. Maybe it’s a product of not being engaged in the game the way they need to be.
It’s probably both.
There has also been a noticeable uptick in “hero plays” as of late. By that, I mean that the Hurricanes have been so stifled in the neutral zone and offensive zone that single players have been cheating their game in hopes of manufacturing a goal. When this happens, the full team game Carolina wants to play is compromised.
Extra passes, blind passes, forcing pucks to places where you know you can’t get it, end-to-end rushes.
I don’t view these things as a low-effort thing or a selfish thing. It’s probably the exact opposite. They want to score and they want to win. They haven’t won lately, so guys are playing differently, and we’ve seen so many times over the years that it doesn’t work. There has been some good individual effort on display, but that doesn’t translate to wins when there are two guys on the ice who are on a different page than the other three.
It hasn’t just been inexperienced guys like Svechnikov, either. Slavin has had those plays, too, and you expect him to be the responsible presence on the back end. In his case, maybe he feels pressure to make plays that other defensemen would make if they were healthy (more on that Monday).
The Hurricanes need their goalies to make key saves, but there’s a point where you just can’t point your finger at the two AHL goalies. You have to look at the five skaters in front of them at any given time.
Injuries play a role. Bringing in new faces plays a role. A tough schedule plays a role. It’s impossible to overstate just how important Hamilton and Pesce are to this team - watch five minutes of their game in Philly and you’ll see what I mean.
Excuses won’t get anyone anywhere, though. This team is still in the thick of a playoff race, even in the midst of this miserable stretch they’ve had. They can’t play the same way they were playing in December, because this is a different team than it was in December. It’s time to change or die, because the overarching fact about this group right now is pretty obvious.
To a man, they haven’t been good enough.