On paper, this looks like a game that the Hurricanes ran away with. They beat the Sabres 4-2, outshot them by 32 and mauled them in the territorial game. It looks like one of the most dominant performances this team has put together in awhile, but it was actually a lot more frustrating to watch from the Carolina perspective. Despite recording over 30 scoring chances and taking the play to Buffalo for most of the game, the score was tied for msot of the game and the Hurricanes actually had to come back twice to pull off a win.
This is largely due to Buffalo's newly acquired goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who slammed the door on the Hurricanes for the first 40 minutes, stopping 34 shots and all 22 he faced in the second period. He ended the game with an astonishing 51 saves and while it wasn't enough to steal a win for Buffalo, he gave the Hurricanes a lot of problems last night. As great as Neuvirth was, the Hurricanes kind of made him look better than he really is. He had to deal with an enormous workload but he was taking away basically all of the lower part of the net and this is where the majority of the Hurricanes chances were going. The Hurricanes essentially had to be begged to elevate the puck to play away from Neuvirth's strength and the one shot that finally beat them was a bad angle shot from Alex Semin that deflected off a Sabres defenseman's skate.
With that being said, you could argue that the Hurricanes "earned" that bounce because they were the team in control for most of the game. They dominated the Sabres from a territorial standpoint and made the most of their zone time by creating 31 chances, which is impressive for this team. They've had more than a few nights like this before where they carried the play and saw no reward for it, so it was nice to see history not repeat itself even though it took awhile for them to solve Neuvirth.
It's a little hard to get excited about a game like this because Buffalo has been one of the worst possession teams in the league all season, but we're seeing a good trend continue with the Hurricanes that started in the second period against the New Jersey Devils last Saturday night. They're playing much more of an aggressive brand of hockey and slowly moving away from the conservative approach that has been a burden on this club since around November. It's probably too late in the season for it to make a difference in their playoff chances, but the Hurricanes have at least been more enjoyable to watch these last couple of games.
Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater
This isn't anything new for the Sabres because they're used to getting outshot, outplayed and outchanced this year. The pure volume of scoring chances that the Hurricanes created is a little surprising, though because "shot quality" has been a big issue in Raleigh. The Hurricanes may have been playing to Neuvirth's strengths by constantly shooting low, but they still just took it to the Sabres for most of this game and were going to get rewarded for it eventually. They were constantly finding guys open in the middle of the ice and were getting to the front of the net unguarded, so creating scoring chances wasn't much of an issue for the Hurricanes.
Another surprising thing with the chance count is that this game was fairly even for the first 20 minutes and it looked like the Hurricanes were in for a tough night. They just completely took over the game after that and dominated the Sabres.
Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances
Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Eric Staal +6
Worst EV Forwards: Riley Nash & Jiri Tlusty EVEN
Best EV Defensemen: Brett Bellemore & Ron Hainsey +8
Worst EV Defensemen: Mike Komisarek & Jay Harrison -1
Eric Staal's line may have had the best night going by scoring chance differential, but his brother's line with Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty were the real stars of the night. The Sabres were held to only three shot attempts when this trio was on the ice and the puck never left the offensive zone when they were out there. They also produced the game-winning goal which came after a dominant shift where these three cycled the puck down low and wore down the Sabre defense by getting them to scramble around in their own zone. They may not have the offensive flare that the "first line" packs, but these three were easily the best players on the ice last night.
Someone who may also earn that honor is Jeff Skinner, who had a monster night when it came to producing offense. He's usually among Carolina's leaders in individual chances & shots on goal, but I don't think he has ever come close to what he did last night. Skinner managed to get the puck on net 13 times and nine of them were scoring chances. It wasn't like he was cheating for them either because Skinner was doing an excllent job of fending off Sabres defenders and getting to the front of the net to create chances. The move he pulled on Christian Ehrhoff for the Hurricanes first goal of the game was a fine example of that. Skinner's cooled down since his goal-scoring surge in September, but he is creating chances and seems to be getting rewarded for them more since being reunited with Eric Staal. That entire line had a great night when you factor Staal's production into the equation and Lindholm also had a good night when the secondary assist on Skinner's goal.
The defense also had an excellent night with Ron Hainsey & Brett Bellemore leading the way. These two were on the ice whenever Eric Staal's line was, so their scoring chance numbers are a little inflated, but they did their job of keeping most of the Sabres offense in check and quickly moving the puck out of their own zone. Sekera & Murphy were also very good, albeit more noticeable than the Hainsey/Bellemore pairing. Most of this i because Murphy had the green light to do pretty much whatever he wanted with the puck. He was jumping into the play every chance he got and wasn't afraid to carry the puck through the neutral zone when there weren't any passing plays oepn. Murphy also gave the power play a bit of a spark and was really quick with his decisions. This is one thing that has changed with him since his most recent call-up. He's not as hesitant with the puck as he was earlier in the year and is shooting almost every chance he gets. His development will be something to watch as we enter the final few weeks of the season.
Sabres Individual Scoring Chances
Sabres On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forwards: Ville Leino & Zenon Konopka -1
Worst EV Forward: Drew Stafford -7
Best EV Defenseman: Alex Sulzer EVEN
Worst EV Defenseman: Henrik Tallinder -10
It's hard to note any standouts for Buffalo because the entire team was in the red in scoring chances, but Tyler Ennis was probably their most dangerous forward. He led the team in shot attempts and had the penalty shot goal, which came after he sprung past the Hurricanes defense for a breakaway chance. Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff also gave the Hurricanes some trouble with how often they jumped into the play.
Outside of those players and Neuvirth, it was a tough night for the Sabres overall. They were playing down a defenseman with Alex Sulzer getting knocked out of the game and had to play John Scott on their blue line. The results were about what you would expect. Although, his defense pairing with Jamie McBain had a much better night than Mike Weber & Henrik Tallinder, who were on the ice for a boatload of Carolina scoring chances.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
The only tough matchup the Hurricanes had to avoid was getting their best players away from the Myers/Ehrhoff defense pairing. Everything else didn't really matter with the state the Sabres are in and Carolina managed to win most of their matchups. Having Jordan's line out against Weber & Tallinder instead of Ehrhoff & Myers really made a difference, though. It's also interesting that Carolina's fourth line did some real damage against Cody Hodgson's line because that's one of the Sabres best forward units, or at least it's supposed to be.
5v5 Zone Entries
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When I said that the Canes were continuing a good trend, this is what I meant. Their neutral zone play has gotten so much better since the game against the Devils and they had yet another gam where they carried the puck in more than half the time during five-on-five play. This is also where having Ryan Murphy in the lineup and playing to his strengths comes in handy because he adds another dimension to the Hurricanes defense when he is on his game. It's something the team has lacked ever since Joni Pitkanen went down with an injury last season and has struggled to recapture even with Sekera having a career year offensively.
Also of note here is Jeff Skinner's eight controlled entries, showing that he was doing enough work to create offense on his own and not just feed off Eric Staal like some might be suspecting.
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The downside to playing aggressive in the neutral zone is having lapses in defensive coverage and in the transition game. This happened a few times last night with the Sabres also having control on more than 50% of their 5v5 zone entries. It didn't have too much of an impact on the shot or chance count because the Hurricanes had 16 more entries than Buffalo, but it did open the door for the Sabres to create a few chances. They've had a tough year, but their defense can jump into the play when they want to, something we saw with Ehrhoff and Myers last night.
5v5 Zone Exits
Ryan Murphy led the way again with five carry-outs in the defensive zone and Hainsey also had an impressive game with eight successful exits on 21 attempts. This is part of the reason why he and Bellemore had such a good game from a territorial standpoint. They were quickly able to move the play out of their own zone and it's been an underrated part of their game all year.
I've been tracking zone exits for almost two years now and the Sabres performance last night is among the worst I have ever tracked. On 186 attempts, they successfully advanced the puck only 19.4% of the time and had 20 turnovers on top of that. Entering the zone with control wasn't a problem for the Sabres, they just couldn't get the puck out at all or get any traction going out of their own zone. Their defense had a pretty tough night overall but their forwards didn't help matters with how often they turned the puck over.