Carolina's blue-line has been missing a key piece for most of the season as they have gone about three months without the services of Joni Pitkanen. He has been out since early December with both a concussion and a knee injury which required surgery but according to reports, he could be returning to the lineup as soon as Wednesday. His presence on the powerplay has been missed greatly and so have his puck-moving skills so getting him back will be a huge boost to the lineup. The question is, how will the Hurricanes use Pitkanen when he returns? The nice thing about a defenseman like Pitkanen is that you can use him in almost anyway you want. He can play top pairing minutes but can also play the powerplay/offensive specialist role and kill penalties if you need him to. After the jump, we'll take a look at how Kirk Muller and Dave Lewis might use Pitkanen based on who he's had success with in the past and what would work best for the rest of the defense corps.
We've seen this team put together winning streaks despite getting dominated in the possession game and this past week was one of those times. The Hurricanes won three out of their four games and controlled roughly 45% of the corsi events at even strength. To most people, this would tell people that the Canes are a house of cards and a tough losing streak is right around the corner, but if you were to go by only shots and scoring chances, their underlying numbers do not look nearly as bad. The Hurricanes actually controlled 50.3% of the even strength shots this past week but only 49.5% at even strength, so they were being outplayed but not nearly as bad as the possession numbers indicate.
Numbers aside, I'm sure that many fans are feeling good about this past week. They shutout the top team in the Western Conference, had two comeback victories and a good effort against the Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers. The Canes lack the talent to be a dominant possession team right now but Kirk Muller has them giving their best effort every night and I'm glad that we're starting to see more wins come with it. Although, I am a tad skeptical about how these final ten games will go because the Canes are still spending a lot of time in their own end and that's going to come back to hurt them sooner or later.
After the jump, we'll single out some performances from the last week.
It wasn't too long ago that Hurricanes fans dreaded the third period because the Canes would always seem to save their worst performance for that frame and ended up losing many games because of it. Over the last three games, the Canes have outscored their opponents 6-0 in the third period and have comeback wins in two of those games, as well. What is even more encouraging is that they've outshot and outchanced their opponents in all three of these games so it's not just luck that's been carrying them through the third period. The Canes have been working hard to win these games and it's something I hope we continue to see under Kirk Muller.
Tonight's 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets was very satisfying because not only was it a win against a division opponent on the road, but it was also a nice way to make the Jets pay for their dirty play throughout the game. We saw three very ugly hits from Winnipeg players, one of which was a blatant charge that will likely put Andreas Nodl on the shelf for a bit, and while many are hoping that these players receive a punishment from Mr. Shanahan, Carolina picking up the victory tonight and putting a dent in Winnipeg's playoff hopes is satisfying enough for me.
Despite the thrilling win, Carolina was sloppy for the first two periods and probably could have put this game away much earlier when you factor in that they had five powerplays to work with, one of which was five minutes and still let the Jets take the lead. Their play at even strength was pretty weak as they only registered nine scoring chances but they limited the Jets to 12 and kept the game in reach for most of the time. You have to love the way Carolina played in the third period, though. Their efforts in the final 20 minutes of the last few games have been terrific and it would be great to see them play like that over a full 60 minutes.
Scoring chances & more after the jump
Players like Jerome Samson are frustrating because they are known as goal-scorers, need top-six minutes to be successful and have scored at nearly a point-per-game pace in every level but the NHL. Every team has a player like this in their organization and most of them are kept around for scoring depth at the AHL level and for emergency call-ups. Samson seems to fit in this class because he has been a 20-goal scorer for the Hurricanes AHL affiliates in Albany & Charlotte over the last four (could be five) seasons and has still yet to make his mark in the NHL. He has played 46 games with the Hurricanes over the last three years and has accumulated a grand total of nine points and scored his first NHL goal only this season.
Samson is a restricted free agent at the end of the year and considering that he was scratched in favor of Derek Joslin, a defeseman who has been forced to play forward due to depth issues, and eventually sent back to the AHL, many are wondering if Samson's time with in the NHL is coming to an end. His future with the organization is not looking promising but who is to say that Samson is destined to be a career AHL-er at the age of 24? With so many 19-21 year olds entering the league, it's tough for older "rookies" like Samson to make their mark in the league but it isn't impossible for a player to enter the league and become a full-time player in their mid-20's. The question is can Samson become a full-time NHL player next season at the age of 25, what kind of player will he be and will he break into the NHL as a Carolina Hurricane? Those will be explored after the jump.
A couple of the Hurricanes players had today's game against the Minnesota Wild circled on their calendars because it was the first time that they would be playing in their home state at the NHL level. Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain both grew up playing in Minnesota and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul was the building where Faulk's University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs won their first NCAA national championship a little under a year ago. Both of them had an emotional return to the State of Hockey but the guy who stole the show today was Colorado-native Drayson Bowman, who had a two-goal, three point performance to lead the Hurricanes to a 5-3 victory over the Wild.
This win did not come easy, though as Carolina had to battle back from a 3-1 deficit and really made goaltender Brian Boucher earn his first win of the season late in the game. Neither team had much of a territorial advantage and things could have gone either way but it looked like the Wild had a win locked up when they took a 3-1 lead. This was a team that was 18-4-2 when leading after the second period and Carolina wasn't exactly producing a lot of offense but if there's one thing Minnesota hockey has taught us this weekend, it's that a two-goal lead isn't safe in hockey and the Hurricanes showed that today. They got a late second period goal on a lucky bounce and then came out strong in the third with two more goals to take the lead. Despite not recording a scoring chance in the last ten minutes, the Hurricanes held onto the lead and took home a win.
A very nice win to build off of as we head into the final stages of this road trip.
Scoring chances & more after the jump
The Hurricanes were hit with some surprising news yesterday evening as it was announced that forward Jeff Skinner would be suspended two games for "kicking" St. Louis player Scott Nichol with his skate blade during Thursday's game against the Blues. This is the first time that a Hurricanes player has been "Shanabanned" this year and the news surprised a lot of fans because not much was made of this incident by either broadcast team when it happened during the game. It did not miss the eye of Mr. Shanahan, though and Skinner will sit out the next two games.
When looking at the suspension explanation video, you can clearly see that Skinner uses his skate blade in a kicking motion on Nichol in an attempt to make more room for himself. This is in violation of Rule 49.1 and is an extremely dangerous play by Skinner. Martin Havlat was suspended five games for a similar instance in 2005. Skinner absolutely deserves this suspension and there is no debate about that, but this has led to some interesting discussions among Carolina fans about the team's need for an "enforcer" to look out for Skinner.
Anyone who watches Carolina knows that opposing teams have been taking liberties with Skinner ever since he came into the league and its easy to see why. Skinner is younger, smaller and weaker than a lot of his competition in the NHL and it has led to him be on the receiving end of some punishing hits from the likes of Brooks Orpik, Andy Sutton and Mark Fistric. The Hurricanes don't have a designated figher or "tough guy" on their team and Skinner's had to defend himself most of the time and it has led to him doing some pretty bad things between the whistles. The kicking incident that got Skinner suspended was done out of self-defense and he's also resorted to some cheap tactics in an effort to defend himself as of late and I am not a fan of it at all. Skinner is an amazing player and I understand that he has to defend himself despite being at a size and height disadvantage but I want him to be known for his goal-scoring and play-making skills rather than the stuff he resorts to between whistles to defend himself.
This is where the "enforcer" would come into play for most people. The idea is that having a big, intimidating fighter in the lineup will prevent other teams from taking runs at their players but in today's NHL, the role of an enforcer is very limited. Most play only five minutes per game, have little to no hockey skills and generally don't have much of an effect because of the instigator rule. It's a debate that has been run to the ground among hockey bloggers and all I can think of when people bring up a team's "need for an enforcer" is how little of them have much of an effect in the NHL right now. Many teams have tried to make room for a player like that but how many of them actually use these enforcers? Steve MacIntyre has played only 11 games for the Penguins this year, Brian McGrattan has played 30 games for the Nashville Predators, Darcy Hordichuk, Kevin Westgarth and Jody Shelley are healthy scratches on most nights and I don't even need to get into the Joel Rechlicz fiasco in Washington.
I am not sure if an enforcer is needed on the Hurricanes to protect guys like Skinner but what would help is having more of the team's bigger players help defend him. Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen have done this many times in the past and I guess it wouldn't hurt to have them step up their games a little bit. The only problem with them fighting and "roughing up" those who take runs at Skinner is that it normally results in one of them going to the box and that hurts the team because both are two of Carolina's best penalty killers. Anthony Stewart and Derek Joslin are two other players who have been willing to drop the gloves in the past and both are big, physical players that can provide an intimidating presence to opponent's. The issue here is that neither play a lot of minutes and likely will not be on the ice when Skinner is. I could see both of them playing a role similar to an enforcer, only they help the team in other ways besides fighting. Tuomo Ruutu is another player who I can see sticking up for Skinner during scrums and he plays on a line with him almost regularly.
Skinner is only 19 and he will eventually mature enough physically to fight his own battles but until then, he is going to need some help. Like I just said, he's still a kid and his actions between the whistles show that he still has some learning to do when it comes to picking his battles and defending himself. His teammates can help him out with this area of the game but I do not think that help should come in the form of an enforcer.
The "first" game at the newly christened PNC Arena was a great one as the Hurricanes and Blues had themselves a good old fashioned goaltender duel between Cam Ward and Brian Elliott. Both netminders were tested plenty and played well enough to give their teams a chance to win but in the end, Carolina came out on top and Ward earned his 200th win with a 40-save shutout performance. He certainly did his part to keep this game tied at zero for the first two periods and the offense eventually came through for him in the third period with two goals.
This was a pretty odd game because despite a quarter of it being played at special teams, nothing too drastic happened as a result. The Blues and Hurricanes both had five powerplays a piece and neither scored on any of them. That doesn't happen too often so both teams should consider themselves lucky to get out of that mess relatively unscathed, and the Hurricanes should be glad that going 0/5 of the powerplay didn't come back to hurt them in the end like it has many times this year.
Solid win for the Canes against one of the best possession teams in the league. They were outshot 40-30 but they lowered the amount of chances they were giving up at even strength, got the goaltending they needed and the offense showed up at the right time. They also got a solid performance from the top line for the first time in about a week. Lots of things to feel good about with this win that we'll dive into after the jump.
The Hurricanes are now winless against both New York teams as they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Rangers last night. The game went about as most would expect considering the Rangers are sitting on top of the Eastern Conference and the Hurricanes are out of the race but are still battling to win games. Despite the score, that's pretty much what this game was like. Carolina managed to turn a 3-0 game into a one-goal deficit but could not complete the comeback as the Rangers put the Canes on lockdown for the rest of the third period an got an insurance goal from Carl Hagelin to put the game away. Hagelin's line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik was the story of the game as that line scored all of the Rangers goals, had 15 shots on goal and 13 scoring chances. Not many defenses are going to stop that.
"Good effort" is a phrase that's been thrown around here lately and that's all you can really say about Carolina's play when they lose. They haven't been playing bad and there's even been a few games when they've been able to outchance their opponents despite not coming away with the two points. Last night wasn't one of those instances, but the Canes certainly did not look bad. The Rangers just played better and got a couple more bounces.
Scoring chances & more after the jump
The news of Bobby Sanguinetti being called up has a lot of people talking about the future of Carolina's defense corps and how bright it is. With young players like Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, Brian Dumoulin, Mark Alt, Danny Biega and Sanguinetti in the system, there is a reason to be excited and we've seen Faulk step in and contribute immediately. However, it will be awhile before some of the other prospects start making an impact and if Carolina wants to become a competitive team again, their defensive play is going to need a ton of help. They are last in the NHL in shots allowed at even strength and are a bottom-10 team on the penalty kill.
In my latest weekly report, I made a note saying that this team was giving up too many chances on a nightly basis and they reached a new low last week by surrendering 77 scoring chances over four games. You can't give up over 20 scoring chances per night and expect to be a winning team, so defense has to be somewhat of a priority for the Hurricanes over the next couple of years. Adding a scoring winger would be nice, but I feel that Carolina's defense really needs to be addressed with this rebuild. I've discussed goaltender Cam Ward and how his inconsistency has been a reason why Carolina is in the spot they are right now. The team's poor defensive play is a reason why Ward is depended on so much and why the Canes have lived and died by his performance this year. Addressing this need can go a long way.
When I say "defensively play," I do not mean that the defense corps needs to overhauled because I do not think the play from our blue-liners has been horrendous this year. More times than not, the defensemen are put into bad situations due to the forwards refusing to back-check or commit to playing in the defensive zone. It has led to some odd-man rushes and catastrophic breakdowns that turned into goals for the opposing team. Both goals Tampa Bay scored on Saturday night are examples of what I am trying to explain.
Going by what I see, I believe that the forwards are more of a problem with the Hurricanes poor defensive play than the blue-liners themselves, but part of the fun of being a statistician is testing hypotheses like the one I just came up with. Is the Hurricanes poor defensive play mostly due to the forwards not playing a strong two-way game or is it the fault of the blue-liners? It would be nice to know this now so we know what holes to fill over the off-season and whether or not bringing in another defenseman is a need. We'll start examining this after the jump.
The Hurricanes managed to pick up three points in four games this past week when you consider how badly they were outplayed in all four games. They were outshot in all but one game (which was the one they lost, oddly enough), controlled only 41% of the even strength corsi events and 36% of the shots on goal which shows that they were struggling to control play and had a few bounces go in their favor the last week. Goaltending was one of the main reasons why they picked up five out of eight possible points last week as Cam Ward was outstanding in all four games. The Canes were also turning about 9% of their shots into goals, which definitely factored into them being in more games than they should have.
I'm willing to bet that the road trip had something to do with the Hurricanes being outplayed so badly as all four games were on the road and both were back-to-backs. Despite the tough conditions and rough defensive play (gave up over 60 even strength scoring chances) the Canes were still able to win two games and earn points in three, which is good but not promising in the long-term. Acquiring a first line winger might be the first priority this summer, but Carolina really needs to improve defensively if they want to be a better team next year.
After the jump, we will single out some performances.