When you're a team on the cusp of the playoff race, a game against a vastly superior opponent is usually considered a "measuring stick" to see how far away said team is from being a contender. This is somewhat flawed logic because hockey is a wild game where results can be variance on any given night and there are a lot of games where the "better team" ends up losing. Regardless, the Canes have given their fans a lot of things to be optimistic about over the last month and Friday night's game against the Blues was a very good test for them. Carolina has had some trouble against the Western Conference (6-7-5 record going into last night) and the Blues are one of the best teams in the league.
In addition to being a top-five even strength possession club, the Blues have one of the best power plays (2nd) and penalty kills (5th) in the NHL and have a lot of players running on high shooting percentages to boot. So, it looked like the Hurricanes were going to have their hands full last night no matter what and it was going to be interesting to see how the Canes sized up against St. Louis. They ended up looking very good and earned one of their most impressive wins of the season.
It may have been "just one of those nights" for the Blues, as it was for the Sharks in early December, but the Hurricanes played an excellent game against a superior opponent. They did a great job of disrupting the Blues breakouts by pressuring their defensemen and forcing them to ether turn the puck over or not allow them to get any speed going through the neutral zone. St. Louis had to play a dump-and-chase game at even strength for most of the night and were held to only 22 even strength shots on goal as a result. Transitional play has not been one of the Canes strong points this year, but they were better than St. Louis in this area last night and it was a big reason why they came out of this one with a 3-1 win.
This is only one game and Carolina's teased us with performances like this before, but it was still big to get two points out of this game, considering where the team is in the standings right now.
Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater
If there's one complaint I have about this game, it's that the Canes allowed St. Louis to carry the play in the latter stages of the third period and it nearly cost them. They were a couple inches away from tying the game within the last five minutes but Anton Khudobin and the goalpost were able to preserve a victory for them. This is the second time in the past week where the Canes have allowed the other team to come at them in the later stages of a close game and it's eventually going to lead to a couple of bad losses if it keeps up. Carolina's ability to finish games has actually improved a lot since opening night, but the last two wins have been a little nerve-wracking towards the end.
Aside from that, a pretty solid performance despite the Canes getting outchanced at even strength. They capitalized on an early power play and held a slight advantage in scoring chances due to that. They came out very strong in the second period, though and had the Blues scrambling in their own zone for most of that frame. It was pretty impressive to see because the Blues are one of the stronger puck-possession teams in the league and Carolina really took the play to them for those 20 minutes. There were also some stretches in the third where Carolina hemmed the Blues in but it didn't result in them creating much offense. The shift by Jordan Staal, Alex Semin & Jeff Skinner being a fine example of that. Those three played a game of keep-away with the puck in the Blues in for at least 90 seconds but the only shot Carolina crated out of it was a soft wrister from the point. Carolina was simply protecting the lead at that point, so it wasn't that big of a deal but it explains why the scoring chances don't lineup with the shot numbers. Another reason for that is the Blues blocking 19 5v5 shots compared to only four by Carolina.
Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances
Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Drayson Bowman +5
Worst EV Forward: Nathan Gerbe -7
Best EV Defensemen: Jay Harrison & John-Michael Liles +1
Worst EV Defenseman: Justin Faulk -3
Mulller leaned on his top nine and top-four defense late in the game, giving the Gerbe-Malhotra-Dwyer line a lot of ice time in the third period. Supposedly this was to try to shutdown the Blues offense and while it had a good result, this nearly back-fired. Three of the Blues best chances came in the last three minutes and this line was on the ice for all of them. Gerbe & Malhotra ended up having a brutal night in terms of possession & scoring chances and were stuck into their own zone for most of the game. Gerbe was able to salvage some good out of it by scoring the opening goal on the power play.
The team's other goal-scorer, Jeff Skinner, had a big game offensively. He has been a little cold as of late, but he was in his usual form late night, firing ten shots at the net and leading the team in scoring chances. All of this with limited minutes at even strength and less ice time than the majority of the forwards. Either Muller really doesn't trust him defensively or he is seeing something we aren't, because Skinner should be getting more minutes when he is playing this well. Especially when the top line is struggling offensively like they were tonight.
Another interesting observation is that the fourth line barely played at all in the third period and they were the team's best even strength unit by a pretty wide margin. I also thought they were playing well enough to warrant more minutes. They were very good in the first period, producing three scoring chances and giving the Canes most of their even strength offensive that period.
Brett Bellemore was finally inserted back into the lineup and his performance was mixed. He and Jay Harrison were very good in the first period but had a couple of rough shifts in the third. Harrison allowed the Blues to tie the game when he misplayed a puck in the neutral zone and gave them a two-on-one. Fortunatley for him, Khudobin made a big save. Hainsey also had a rough game in his own zone and Faulk/Sekera had trouble containing the Blues first line. For the most part, this was a good performance but the defense corps has seen better nights in terms of preventing chances. Liles and Harrison being the only two players in the black is interesting.
Blues Individual Scoring Chances
Blues On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Vladimir Sobotka +5
Worst EV Forwards: Brenden Morrow & Maxim Lapierre -3
Best EV Defenseman: Kevin Shattenkirk +4
Worst EV Defenseman: Roman Polak -3
Ken Hitchcock jumbled up his lines and defense pairings throughout the game to try to get the team's offense going. Shattenkirk was used with a few partners in the third period and he was a spark for a lot of the Blues offense last night. Another player who seemed to have it for most of the game was Jaden Schwartz. His line with Sobotka & Tarasenko produced three of the Blues scoring chances in the third period and came very close to scoring the game-tying goal late in the contest. Schwartz even got a look on the top line with Steen & Backes for a few shifts.
Another thing Hitchcock tried late in the contest was rolling for forwards with Alex Steen playing the point while still playing at even strength. I don't recall many coaches trying that, so it was interesting to see. Almost worked too.
On a side note, remember when everyone wanted the Canes to sign Brenden Morrow for "leadership?" Good times, good times.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
Malhotra's didn't have much success when he they weren't matched up against the Blues fourth line. Which is a problem because Muller used this trio in a shutdown role in the third period, lining them up against players like Backes and Steen. You can see that didn't work out in the Hurricanes favor. Although, Sekera/Faulk also had trouble with the Blues top players, as well.
5v5 Zone Entries
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This was one of those rare games where the Hurricanes were able to create a decent amount of offense when they carried the puck in. Speaks volumes about how good they were at retrieving the puck and how well they played along the boards. Carrying the puck in was still the better option and the Skinner-JStaal-Lindholm line had a lot of success doing this.
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The Blues are more equipped to play a dump-and-chase game than Carolina and they had to do this out of necessity last night because of how well the Hurricanes were clogging up the neutral zone. St. Louis' offense wasn't completely shut down because they had a decent amount of shots off dump-ins but their game plan was disrupted a little. It's rare for Oshie and Sobotka to be this quiet in the neutral zone.
5v5 Zone Exits
Good game for Carolina's defense in terms of limiting bad plays and not turning the puck over. Although, they could have done a much better job at leading breakouts. St. Louis will generally make that a tough task, though.
The Blues had a slightly better game than Carolina when it came to leading breakouts, although they turned the puck over more often and spent more time in their own end. I mentioned earlier that Carolina did a good job of disrupting St. Louis' breakouts and not allowing them to get much speed going through the neutral zone and the numbers conflict this observation a little. They did turn the puck over more and were very sloppy in the second period, but were still able to move the play forward at a decent rate. Although, they definitely had the puck in their own zone more than the Hurricanes.