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Game 76 By the Numbers: Hurricanes at Penguins

Even with Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup, this was a game that most hockey minds would consider an easy win for the Penguins. They were going up against a Hurricanes team that had just played the night before in Ottawa and are likely heading for a bottom-ten finish in another couple weeks. To add to that, the Canes were also going to be without two of their top-six forwards, one of them being arguably their best forward in Alexander Semin, who was scratched with an illness. With the way the Hurricanes have been playing since the Olympic break, this game looked like it would be a walk in the park even for an injury-depleted Pittsburgh team. For the first 10 minutes it was just that.

Pittsburgh came out flying, controlling the play and bombarding Hurricanes goaltender Anton Khudobin with numerous chances. This early assault earned them a 1-0 lead and it easily could have been a lot more than that had it not been for Khudobin. This looked like it was going to be a fairly easy win for Pittsburgh, but the tides began to turn after this. For the next 10 minutes, Carolina began to tilt the ice in their favor, “outshooting” the Penguins 12-4 in the rest of the period and getting a bit of a lucky goal courtesy of Justin Faulk to tie the game. They were able to carry this over in the second period and third periods, as they dictated most of the play for the rest of the game, outchancing Pittsburgh 11-7 and getting three goals in the final 30 minutes.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this year’s Hurricanes team is that they always have to “weather a storm” before getting to their game. It’s almost like they have to see what they’re in for before they know how to attack it. This strategy has worked at times but on most nights, it has put Carolina in too deep of a hole and this nearly happened again last night. They were able to survive Pittsburgh’s early barrage, though and took over the game by keying in on their weaknesses for the remaining two periods.

Pittsburgh might be a couple points away from clinching the Metropolitan Division, but they are in a vulnerable state now with all of their injuries, especially on defense. The Hurricanes took advantage of this by playing an aggressive forecheck and making Pittsburgh’s defense handle the puck as much as possible. They were able to force the Penguins into making a lot of bad passes, resulting in turnovers and some terribly ineffective breakouts. Carolina capitalized on this well, scoring three goals off Pittsburgh giveaways and shutting down their offense for most of the first two periods. In hockey, one of the most effective ways to play defense is to defend as little as possible. The Hurricanes did a fine job at this for about 40 minutes of last night’s game.

It’s been rare for me to compliment Kirk Muller this season, but he seemed to scout Pittsburgh well here, so I’ll give credit where it’s due.

Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater

Fenwick chart for 2014-04-01 Hurricanes 4 at Penguins 1

Scoring Chances

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I really, really hate doing this type of “analysis,” but it honestly looked like the Penguins just took their foot off the gas pedal after that early assault where they outshot Carolina 12-1. The Hurricanes deserve a lot of credit for this with how they adjusted to the Penguins attack, but Pittsburgh definitely have their best game last night. Carolina’s forecheck played a pretty significant role in this because they did a great job of cutting off passing lanes and forcing Pittsburgh’s defense to move the puck out of the zone on their own.

This led to most of the Pens rushes getting halted in the neutral zone or the Penguins turning the puck over, giving the Hurricanes plenty of zone time and a dominant performance in the scoring chance department. They weren’t as effective with this strategy in the third period, as they sat back more and didn’t establish much of a forecheck, but they kept the Pens offense quiet and got an insurance goal off another defensive zone turnover.

It wasn’t the most exciting game, especially compared to Monday night’s barn-burner in Ottawa, but Carolina had an effective game plan and executed it well for most of the contest.

Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances

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Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances

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Best EV Forwards: Riley Nash & Elias LIndholm +4

Worst EV Forwards: Radek Dvorak & Manny Malhotra -5

Best EV Defenseman: Brett Bellemore +1

Worst EV Defensemen: John-Michael Liles & Justin Faulk -2

A “middle of the road” game for the majority of the lineup with most of the even strength offense coming from the Skinner-Nash-Lindholm line. These three had an awful night in Ottawa, but responded with a very productive night here. Skinner & Lindholm have developed a lot of chemistry since the new year and they could make a pretty exciting duo next season, especially if Lindholm starts shooting more. Even with his goal-scoring, finding consistent linemates for Skinner has been a challenge, but he has produced more 5v5 points with Lindholm on the ice with anyone else and they have been effective on the power play at times, too. Find them a center or a right winger, and they could make up a solid scoring line next season.

On the flipside, the fourth line took most of the defensive damage with both Radek Dvorak & Manny Malhotra being on the ice for five Pittsburgh scoring chances during even strength play. This was partially due to Muller rolling all four lines and sending out Malhotra, Dvorak & Bowman for virtually every defensive zone faceoff, five of them being against Sidney Crosby’s line. This strategy didn’t exactly work well for the Canes and it had a similar result here. Malhotra has a place on any NHL team, but I have a lot of doubts about him being able to handle this kind of workload.

The rest of the forwards all had pretty so-so- nights by my book. Eric Staal & Andrei Loktionov connected for one scoring chance that ended up being a goal while Jordan’s line created a few chances by driving to the net. It’s worth noting that Bylsma kept Crosby away from these three and targeted Eric & Malhotra’s line instead. It’s easy to tell who he had the most success against.

It’s been an interesting couple of games for Justin Faulk with last night being one of his better performances despite being on the wrong side of the scoring chance column. He’s definitely a lot more noticeable, though and is moving the puck up the ice more frequently than he has all season. It’s cool to see because we know the offensive part of his game has always been present, but he hasn’t shown much of it at the NHL level. It’s too bad that the season is almost over because it would have been interesting to see this part of his game develop.

Penguins Individual Scoring Chances

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Penguins On-Ice Scoring Chances

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Best EV Forward: Sidney Crosby +5

Worst EV Forwards: Taylor Pyatt, Brandon Sutter & Jayson Megna -2

Best EV Defenseman: Brooks Orpik +4

Worst EV Defenseman: Eryk Engelland -2

Most of the penguins chances came in the first period and Crosby’s line gave the Hurricanes the most trouble of all, producing four scoring chances and the Penguins first goal. Brian Gibbons & Brandon Sutter also created a decent amount of offense while giving it back at the other end. Sutter’s line actually took most of the defensive damage for Pittsburgh and it’s not a surprise to see that they were matched up against Nash’s line with Skinner & Lindholm. This was one of those nights where having Skinner on the “third line” to create favorable matchups actually worked.

The scoring chance numbers are a little misleading for Pittsburgh’s defense because I didn’t think anyone on their blue-line played particularly well. As I mentioned earlier, three of Carolina’s goals came from turnovers off breakouts or failed clearing attempts and two of them came courtesy of Deryk Engelland. His turnover on Elias Lindholm’s second goal was especially bad, as he failed to corral a pass from Rob Scuderi and tried to back-hand the puck out of the zone. He ended up giving it right to Lindholm, who quickly took advantage of the situation. The fact that two of the three chances he was on the ice for resulted in goals is sort of bad luck, but he didn’t exactly help himself here.

 Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five

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Bylsma is all about trying to get favorable matchups for his stars at home and he tried to give Crosby a boost by keeping him away from Jordan Staal. Crosby definitely got the better of this matchup, but his line did pretty well regardless of who they were out against. Carolina got the better of a few matchups, too with Nash’s line beating Pittsburgh’s third line and Jordan Staal’s line feasting on Pittsburgh’s fourth line a few times. The Nash line also created a decent amount of offense against the Orpik-Bortuzzo pairing, which isn’t terribly surprising.

5v5 Zone Entries

Hurricanes

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Carolina played with a lead for the entire third period and stuck to a dump-and-chase game for basically the frame. That said, even when they weren’t ahead, their main strategy was to get it deep and create turnovers by Pittsburgh’s defense if they were beaten to the puck. It resulted in three goals, but not a lot of offense on the evening so you could say that they got a bit lucky here.

I’m not sure why Terry was relied on so much to enter the zone with Eric & Loktionov on his line, though. Seems kind of odd, but if the MO was to play a dump-and-chase game then that probably explains it. Also, I’m pretty sure this is the first time all season that a defenseman led the Hurricanes in carry-ins. Surprising that it was Faulk and not Andrej Sekera or Ryan Murphy.

Penguins

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Going from the eye-test, I thought the Hurricanes did a good job of clogging the neutral zone and forcing the Pens to dump the puck in when they didn’t want to. Apparently they didn’t do a good enough job because the Pens had possession on 50% of their entries. That’s an improvement for the Hurricanes compared to most games after the Olympic break, but I still though they did a better job than what is shown here. That said, they did limit the Pens offense off entries, which is probably what mattered the most.

5v5 Zone Exits

Hurricanes

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It was a pretty good game for zone exits by the defense for everyone except the Harrison/Bellemore pairing. Harrison was able to exit the zone at a decent rate, but he turned the puck over way too many times, which is playing with fire against a team like Pittsburgh. Faulk also had a few too many giveaways for my liking. He and Sekera bailed themselves out of trouble with how efficient they were at leading breakouts, though. Sekera was notably good at swiftly moving the puck out of the defensive zone and getting things moving in the right direction. That’s generally what his specialty is.

Penguins

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Here you see what I was talking about for most of the article. Just an awful night for the Pens defense corps when it came to moving the puck out of their own zone. They didn’t turn the puck over at that high of a rate, but they had trouble at completing passes and starting breakouts. Olli Maatta was their only defenseman who advanced the puck on over 20% of his zone exit attempts and they got some brutal results out of the Bortuzzo/Orpik pairing. Paul Martin’s return probably can’t come soon enough for Pittsburgh.

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