Tonight, the Hurricanes will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are currently in the hunt in the Atlantic Division but have fallen on hard times as of late. They are 3-5-2 in their last 10 and are one of the worst teams in the league in terms of even strength puck-possession. The Leafs managed to make the playoffs in last year's condensed schedule despite this, but it appears that they have gotten worse this season. They are currently dead last in the NHL in 5v5 Corsi (Shot Attempts) Percentage and only the Buffalo Sabres have been even worse in close game situations. Things are even uglier for them in terms of shot differential, as Toronto is the worst team in the NHL by a wide margin, giving up 16 more shots than they create during every 60 minutes of 5v5 play. That's nearly four shots worse than the 29th ranked Calgary Flames!
Given that, it's fair to say that tonight's game should be a good chance for the Canes to get a win and possibly get the ship going in the right direction. There's just one problem with that, though...Carolina has been a bad possession team at even strength, as well. They haven't been as bad as Toronto, who are in a class of their own, but Carolina has been in the bottom-ten in this category for most of the year and haven't been able to make up for it on special teams. That said, one edge they might have on Toronto is that they have been improving as the year has gone on. Some might say the Hurricanes are in a funk right now, which is probably fair because they've won only three of their last 10 and have lost four games in overtime during this stretch but their play at even strength has slowly been getting better.
Over the last 10 games, Carolina has outshot their opponents 248-234 during 5v5 play and has won the possession battle by owning a 514-423 advantage in shot attempts. It hasn't resulted in many wins, but ten games is a small enough sample size for random variance to creep in and the Hurricanes have been the victim of that during this stretch. Consider the Washington game where they outplayed the Caps but lost because they gave up three power play goals. They also lost four games in overtime, three of them being in games where they outshot their opposition. Their three regulation losses were also by only one goal if you discount the empty netters in the Vancouver & Washington games respectively.
Replay these games and there's a fairly decent chance that the Canes would come away with a better result. Losing a high number of close game is something that's often a product of luck and when you consider that the Hurricanes have been winning the possession battle during this stretch, it's fair to say that the Canes may have gotten a little unlucky recently. Some might consider it an "excuse" and chalk up the team's close game misfortunes to bad leadership, but don't discount the role random chance has in hockey. Carolina has played like a better team over the last 10 games even if the results aren't showing it yet. Compare their numbers now to what they were at the beginning of the season and you'll notice a vast improvement.
Carolina was treading water in terms of possession for most of the year and their numbers began to fall off a cliff after Alexander Semin went down with a concussion. Losing Jeff Skinner a few games prior to that didn't help either, but losing Semin was a major blow to the team's even strength play. Now that both of them are back in the lineup, the Canes have been better at even strength and have won the possession battle in nine of the last 10 games. Oddly enough, they earned a point in the one game where they were woefully outshot, which was the overtime loss to Tampa Bay. They're still under 50% overall and have a lot of flaws to work on, specifically on special teams, but we're seeing some progress with the Hurricanes right now.
The question is whether or not it will lead to more wins. Right now, it's tough to say because this team has been so inconsistent all year. If they continue to do what they've been doing for the last ten games, then they should see some better results but prior to that, they were playing like one of the worst possession teams in the league. Granted, most of those games were without Semin & Skinner but they were struggling to stay above water even with them in the lineup.
Carolina's a top-heavy team with not a lot of forward depth to speak of, so a couple of injuries to high caliber players can throw things off the rails. Both Semin & Skinner fall into that category and their absences had a pretty big impact on Carolina's ability to control territorial play.
Semin may not be scoring like he was last year, but he is the team's best forward at driving the play and the Hurricanes had a big hole to fill when he was out of the lineup. Notice how Eric Staal's numbers took a dip right after Semin got hurt. He eventually regained his footing after being put on a line with Jeff Skinner & Tuomo Ruutu, but it took some time for him to adjust. Semin's injury had a domino effect on the rest of the team, too.
Not only is Semin the Canes best possession forward, but he also plays more minutes than almost anyone else and his absence left some big shoes to fill and the Canes didn't really have anyone who could fill that void. Aside from the Staals and Nathan Gerbe, none of Carolina's forwards were driving the play forward at a high rate and they were trying to use many of them in a top line role.
The Hurricanes captain has been a popular scapegoat amongst fans this year, but it's pretty obvious that he isn't the problem. Staal has been one of the team's best forwards and while he could be a lot better, his supporting cast has been very poor. One of his regular linemates, JIri Tlusty, has predictably seen his shooting percentage regress and he has become a possession sinkhole on top of that. Skinner has also struggled to drive the play since returning from an injury, although he recently broke the 50% mark, and Tuomo Ruutu looked like he was playing with a busted wheel for most of the season.
With Carolina's third and fourth lines also doing nothing to drive the play, it has essentially been the Staal brothers, Gerbe & Semin who have been making this team go. This sheds some light on the Hurricanes offensive problems. They don't score much because they rarely have the puck and they never have the puck because only four of their forwards are capable of moving it up ice and keeping play in the offensive zone. Oh, and one of them just missed 12 games with a concussion, so there's your explanation on why Carolina's ability to drive possession fell off a cliff during November.
Bad depth is one of the reasons why this team's even strength play has been so inconsistent and having more forwards contribute to driving the play can really go along way. Semin returning to the lineup has improved things a little and players like Skinner, Nash, Ruutu & Dwyer have also picked it up as of late. Ruutu & Nash are still sub-.500 in terms of 5v5 shot attempts, but their play over the last 10 games has been better while both Dwyer & Skinner are now both positive possession players.
They need to keep this up if the Hurricanes are going to string together any wins, though. The results have not been there the last ten games, but the process has improved considerably and hopefully it will lead to better things soon. That's only if they can continue to stay the course and not fall back into a rut like they did in mid/late-November.
Stats taken from Extra Skater