Sebastian Aho’s highlight reel play and Andrei Svechnikov’s hat trick certainly garnered national attention, and deservedly so. But the Carolina Hurricanes defensive efforts in their Qualifying Round sweep of the New York Rangers is an encouraging sign for a team hoping to make a lengthy playoff run.
The Hurricanes were not as disciplined in staying out of the penalty box as they would have liked, but their positional discipline in the defensive zone was a major bright spot.
After being burned by the Rangers several times on missed assignments in the regular season, the Canes’ defensive zone was stout. Carolina allowed New York to maintain possession for periods of time, but the play was kept to the outside, leaving the Rangers only low percentage, perimeter shots.
A few of the sharp angle shots produced rebounds, but the Hurricanes won the majority of puck battles throughout the series and rarely faced any high danger second chances.
There were even shifts where the Rangers were not able to muster even a bad angle shot due to the suffocating defensive pressure.
New York coach David Quinn publicly implored his team to get to the middle of the ice more, but the Rangers’ playoff inexperience showed.
In the four regular season meetings, the Hurricanes had fallen victim to the Rangers’ quick strike attack and transition offense, often getting caught trying to generate their own counter attack. But in the qualifying round, Carolina’s defensemen were more selective with when they jumped into the play and were able to limit New York to bad shots, even off of line changes.
This time when New York countered, the Carolina defenders stayed home and made the Rangers look like a team that was used to getting things the easy way.
The slight adjustment of the weak side defenseman playing more conservatively and staying home, in the clip below it is Haydn Fleury, limited the Rangers’ counter attack.
In loose puck situations, the Hurricanes usually like to activate their weak-side defenseman to generate numbers the other way, but if the puck battle is lost, a less than precise step up could lead to an odd man rush and a high danger chance against. But in the clip above, with Fleury staying home, what could have been a New York odd man rush, turns into a traditional 2 on 2, with a solid backchecker picking up the third man, Artemi Panarin. It led to another bad-angle shot.
It was a theme throughout the series. When New York could not easily gain the middle, they Rangers settled for bad-angle shots. The game 2 heat map below, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, shows just how perimeter based the Rangers were, with the majority of shots coming from outside the tops of the circles.
In fact, the Rangers scored just two goals in the series at 5 on 5.
And when there were shaky defensive moments, Carolina’s last line of defense bailed its teammates out. Whether it was James Reimer making a beautiful glove save on Panarin, a Hart Trophy finalist...
Or Mrazek covering up a brutal missed assignment by Vincent Trocheck, shown below.
And of course Reimer’s, and Sami Vatanen’s, desperation efforts on the second and third chances after Reimer stopped a Brendan Lemieux breakaway.
No matter who Carolina’s opponent is in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the defensive formula should remain the same. Limit the opposition’s looks in the middle of the ice and instead contain them to the perimeter. And if, and more likely when, that occasionally breaks down, trust in the goaltenders to continue saving the day with their spectacular play.