The Carolina Hurricanes returned to the east coast this past week after a grueling trek through the Pacific Division, but their homecoming was less than ceremonious.
They were dealt a 6-2 loss against the New York Islanders on Friday night, good for their most lopsided loss of the young season.
While the loss was disappointing, it featured another in a long line of dazzling plays by Martin Necas, whose second-period goal put the Canes on the board and tied the game at a goal apiece.
Last week, I wrote about the massive steps Necas has made in the season's early stages. This week, he's now riding a four-game point streak and leads the club in assists (eight) and points (13) through nine regular-season games.
His goal against the Islanders was another example of his two-way focus. His defensive play cleared the puck out from the front of the open net as he rifled it around the corner and up the boards. Then, the rest of the sequence was sheer Necas talent with his jump up into the play and the give-and-go with Brady Skjei at the offensive blue line.
That effort carried over into the most significant moments of Carolina's back-to-back overtime/shootout wins against the Flyers and Capitals.
On a goal very similar to one of Andrei Svechnikov's tallies up in Edmonton, Necas bore down and went straight at the Philly defense before finding the back of the net. He then very nearly ended the game with a thorough undressing of Tony DeAngelo in overtime before setting up Brent Burns' game-winning one-timer.
Necas put up back-to-back multi-point games to close out the last week of play (his fourth in nine games), and his offensive surge to kick off the year correlates directly with his continued defensive reliability.
His transition to the middle of the ice has also rendered positive results. He's won 52.5% of his faceoffs this season, and his 32 faceoff wins are just six shy of his career-high of 38 last season (on a 44.7% win rate).
It was another strong week for the 23-year-old forward, who has handled the sharp increase in his usage remarkably well. He's averaging north of 3:30 more ice time compared to last year, and it appears his being fully embraced as a top-of-the-lineup player has only boosted his confidence.
The premature loss of Max Pacioretty over the offseason was a massive blow. While Necas has played a considerable role in diminishing the effects of the loss, a good deal of credit should also be given to the bottom of Carolina's forward depth chart.
There's always a need for a player like Pacioretty at 5-on-5, but his absence is felt the most on the man advantage.
Stefan Noesen has had an unexpectedly significant role on the first power play unit, tasked with the gritty net-front work. His skill has been enough for him to be an active contributor in recovering and moving the puck. His opening goal against the Capitals was his first NHL tally since joining the organization over a year ago.
Noesen's gorgeous redirection was a product of him getting in front of the blue paint, and you could see the reads he was making in real time. He helped the power play unit reset the puck to the top of the zone for Burns, and then he went back to work down low. He made himself an option for Necas and quickly moved into Burns' shooting lane.
He only managed to get into two regular season games with the big club a season ago, but there's a lot of experience under his belt at this level, playing in 215 games across nine NHL seasons after being a first-round pick in 2011.
With him being constantly shipped to and fro in his professional career, it's been rare for him to stay in one place for a sustained period. Last season with the Chicago Wolves, he played in at least half of a team's regular-season games for the first time since 2017-18. He scored a league-high 48 goals with the Wolves, won the Calder Cup, and earned a two-year contract extension.
He isn't a big-time goal-scorer at the NHL level. In fact, his career-high was 13 with the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils. However, he still carries value through his physicality and willingness to grind through highly-contested areas of the ice.
Noesen has been a fine stopgap on the first power play unit, and he's been given the role without much second thought. That may change as the season progresses, especially if the Hurricanes continue to struggle on the power play. At 17.1%, they rank 24th among NHL power plays, which is not nearly as efficient as a team with Necas, Svechnikov, Burns, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Seth Jarvis should be.
Elsewhere in the bottom six, Jordan Staal's checking line appears to be coming together quite nicely.
It took Staal six games to find the scoresheet this season, but he was featured twice in Philadelphia during the opening period of his 1,100th NHL game.
His first goal of the year was a jam shot at the side of Carter Hart's net, and then his line extended the lead late in the period.
Jesper Fast's saucer pass was a beauty, and it happened as a result of his line's tireless work ethic. Fast and Jordan Martinook's heights are listed at six-foot, but they managed to swarm the much-larger Rasmus Ristolainen, win a crucial board battle, and get a vital second goal.
The Martinook-Staal-Fast trio has been outstanding in their ~57 minutes of shared 5-on-5 ice time. They've collected an outrageous 85.4 expected goals-for rate, largely thanks to their .63 expected goals-against per 60 minutes. That's the lowest xGA/60 among the 126 NHL lines, with at least 30 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this season.
The Hurricanes will ride that success out as long as they can. There's no doubting the consistency of Staal and Fast, but only time will tell if Martinook can stay effective over a long season.
Two Tight Wins to End October
Carolina's overtime loss in Calgary during the road trip was a tough pill to swallow, but they put two great bonus-time efforts together over the last week.
The difference in both of those games was star players making big plays. Necas always finds yet another gear in 3-on-3, and he was an absolute menace against the Flyers. Against Washington, Svechnikov stepped up and gave the Canes a shootout advantage that Frederik Andersen was able to take care of.
October is now in the rearview mirror for the Hurricanes, and getting a pair of divisional wins while being able to bear down in stressful situations was a nice way to close it out. They have the second-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference, trailing only the 9-1-0 Boston Bruins.
There was a lot to like from Carolina's opening month. Necas and Svechnikov have had spectacular starts, the club's depth up front and on the blue line has been encouraging, and Antti Raanta played well in his three starts.
Plenty of question marks remain, though. The Teravainen-Aho-Jarvis line certainly has some work to do at 5-on-5, Frederik Andersen hasn't enjoyed nearly the same level of early success he had a season ago, special teams have been inconsistent, and injuries are starting to creep into the equation.
Those issues should start to work themselves out, and as long as they continue to find ways to win games, panic levels surrounding those areas shouldn't get too high. Many of the more significant concerns entering the season have been alleviated to this point.
November will be a chaotic month for the Hurricanes, who will play 14 games over the next 27 days. Their schedule includes both of their regular-season meetings with the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, more interconference matchups, and visits to Eastern Conference contenders in Tampa and Boston.
We're just getting started.