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Defense is winning championships, yet again, in the NHL

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Success in this year’s playoffs has largely been determined by how many goals a team prevents, not how many they score. Are the Hurricanes built for a league that might be seeing a return to defensively-styled hockey?

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals - Game Five Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

For as long as anyone can remember, the NHL has been a copycat league. Teams that win the Stanley Cup, in general, have enormous influence over the style of play that is seen as successful in the NHL, perhaps most notably in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the New Jersey Devils inspired a decade of defensively oriented hockey. It wasn’t until the post-lockout years, when the 2006 Hurricanes set the template that was later perfected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in their three Cup wins, that puck movement became paramount.

But even in that time frame, there was no shortage of defensive juggernauts, most notably the 2011 Boston Bruins and 2012 and ‘14 Los Angeles Kings, who scrapped and clawed their way to glory. And in this year’s bubble, we could be seeing another swing back toward those defensive powerhouses.

Looking at Charting Hockey’s results vs. expectation graph, which tells us teams that are under- or over-performing their expected metrics, the pattern becomes clear: surrender fewer goals, and you’ll have success.

Every team that’s saved more goals than expected, except one - pour one out for Connor Hellebuyck and the Winnipeg Jets - advanced to at least the first round, and five of the seven teams still alive (although barely, in the case of the Flyers, Canucks and Avalanche, all of whom trail in their series) are on the positive side of the ledger. The Golden Knights are treading water, and were on the positive side of zero before last night’s loss, but they’ve been in the margin of error consistently.

On the flip side, every team that was bounced in the qualifying round (again, other than the Jets) was in the negative.

Yeah, I can’t figure out Dallas either.

Goal-scoring certainly helps; just ask the Blackhawks and, to a lesser extent, the Coyotes and Blue Jackets. But look at how many teams are to the left of the zero line, indicating they scored as many goals as were expected: of the 24 teams alive to start the postseason, only seven - including the Hurricanes - outperformed their goal-scoring expectation.

That indicates that a lot of teams ran into stout defenses, and the ones who advanced fought their way through, more than likely on the strength of their own defense. In the bubble, they’re partying like it’s 1996.

Now, it would be rather foolish to try to draw any lasting conclusions from what by its nature is a one-time oddity of a playoff season. After all, one of Colorado or Dallas is guaranteed to advance to the conference final, and Vegas and the Islanders (despite each team’s loss last night) are still odds-on to join them in the third round. Scoring goals is still going to be important, but what we’re seeing is that the teams that try to run and gun are easy pickings in the playoffs - the Maple Leafs and Oilers were sent packing in the qualifying round, and the Capitals joined them on the golf course after the first round.

But if this year’s Stanley Cup winner combines offensive efficiency with lockdown defense, how well-suited are the Hurricanes to match that style?

You’d have to think that a fully healthy Hurricanes roster would be up there with the likes of the Lightning and Islanders. After all, the Hurricanes were without Brett Pesce, and had a clearly-not-100% Dougie Hamilton eating up a ton of minutes. Put those guys in at full strength and the Hurricanes can compete with any defense corps in the league.

And say what you will about Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, but any team that can get .930 goaltending in the playoffs is in pretty good shape. That’s not to say an upgrade couldn’t help, and it’s something the Hurricanes should consider, but the point here is that the fallback option isn’t all that bad.

Where the Hurricanes need to be concerned is in their scoring depth. If the league, and specifically the Eastern Conference, is going to trend more in a defensive direction, the Hurricanes can’t afford to load up their top line with Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Winning games by outscoring the opposition in a more defensively-oriented league is a tall order, and the Hurricanes right now aren’t built to win 2-1 games.

The good news is that they have the defensive part of the equation mostly sorted out. Any line with Jordan Staal on it is going to be quite successful at limiting the opposition (especially on a terror-inducing checking line with Warren Foegele and, say, either Jordan Martinook or Brock McGinn), and Aho and Teravainen are no defensive slouches themselves. But to take the next step, the Hurricanes need to identify those secondary scorers, the Chris Kunitzes and Johan Franzens, who make the difference for teams in the playoffs.

Rod Brind’Amour has been leery of making the lineup too top-heavy for exactly this reason, only reverting to it this season when nothing else has been working. If stout defense and timely goal scoring is the new rule of the day once this year’s Stanley Cup is (finally) awarded, the Hurricanes are positioned well to adapt to that style, but still need some reinforcements to get them over the top.