During Monday's practice, Carolina head coach Kirk Muller unleashed his frustration over his team's performance publicly. It was a side of him that many haven't seen before (at least during his time in Carolina), but the fact that it's coming out now isn't very surprising. Everyone knows the Hurricanes have been underachieving and I'm sure Muller will be the first one to tell you that he's unhappy with the team's effort and execution over the last month or so. He may not be under the same pressure that Randy Carlyle is up in Toronto, but he's basically trying to save his job at this point and will likely need the team to pull off a miracle run in order to stick around next year. Therefore, it's not a shocking to see him more animated & emotional during practices as we get closer to the end of the season.
All this makes for a convenient story for last night's game because the Hurricanes took home a 3-1 over the Columbus Blue Jackets the day after said practice. Some might think this inspired the Hurricanes to play hard, work together as a team and rally together to finish the year strong. It's a nice story, but anyone who watched how this game unfolded knows that it's a bunch of hogwash because the Hurricanes were dominated by the Blue Jackets for most of the night. Columbus had the territorial edge, outshot the Canes by 35 at even strength and held Carolina to no shots for the entire third period. The Jackets shot themselves in the foot with a mistake on the first goal and a parade to the penalty box in the second period (eventually leading to another Carolina goal), but they played well enough to win and probably would have won if Anton Khudobin didn't stand on his head for the entire night.
I won't deny that the Hurricanes worked hard, because they did a lot of good things last night. The problem was that they were stuck in the defensive zone for 70% of the game and played the most conservative strategy possible, relying on luck & goaltending to edge out a win. This is about what most expected when taking the situation into consideration. The Canes came into last night with a shorthanded roster (no Justin Faulk, Jiri Tlusty or Elias Lindholm) and that was made even worse with Ryan Murphy leaving the game in the first period with an injury, so it was going to take an ugly win to get out of Columbus alive and that's exactly what this was. I doubt many expected them to go 20 minutes without a shot on goal and win 3-1, but most knew this was going to be an ugly performance no matter what.
Like all sports, hockey is a results-driven business so getting the win was nice, but don't let that distract you from what actually happened. The reality is that the Hurricanes got a very lucky win on the back of a couple of opportunistic goals and a terrific performance from Khudobin. It's not impossible to win with this formula, but it's difficult to pull off on a consistent basis (especially with this roster), so let's hope the Canes don't make a habit of this for the rest of the season.
Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater
Ignore the score and this is in the running for one of the worst games the Hurricanes played all season and it's surprising that they managed to keep the Jackets off the board for as long as they did. As we all know, goals are what win you games and the Canes took advantage of a defensive miscue by the Jackets to get their first one with Nathan Gerbe scoring on a two-on-one after winning a battle along the boards. Carolina must have thought that was all they needed because they were stuck in the defensive zone for the rest of the period and didn't attempt to create much offense after Gerbe's goal. Part of that was due to them using up all of their energy in the defensive zone due to the Jackets relentless forecheck, but they seemed pretty content to get the puck deep and try to kill the clock. I'm not sure if this was influenced by the roster situation, but Carolina had a "defend first" mentality for most of the game.
They sort of got away from this in the second period, which is where they mustered most of their offense (75% of it to be exact). Part of that was due to the Jackets taking three consecutive penalties, helping Carolina get their legs back and finally spend some time in the Columbus end. It paid off with Andrei Loktionov cashing in on a rebound on Carolina's first power play and the Hurricanes slowly began to even up the shot count as the period went on. Columbus still had the edge at evens, but the Canes didn't look as outmatched as they did earlier in the game and added an insurance goal with Patrick Dwyer scoring on a rocket of a shot off the rush late in the period.
Then the third period happened and Carolina's intentions were clear: Defend the lead and get out of Columbus with two points. They managed to get the job done, but it wasn't easy because the Canes spent basically the entire period trapped in their own zone and had no interest in getting a forecheck going or building on their lead. They attempted only two shots and didn't even get one on goal while allowing 19 to the Jackets, nine of them being scoring chances. Again, the roster situation might have influenced this and it looked like a deliberate strategy by Carolina rather than the team being overwhelemed by the Jackets. Carolina barely had the puck for the entire period and when they got possession, their entire was clear: get it deep and either go for a line change or retreat to the defensive zone. They did a lot of good things in their own end (blocked shots, tied up sticks, cleared away rebounds), but you're going to give up some good looks when you spend essentially the entire period there and the Canes were lucky that they gave up only one goal.
Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances
Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forwards: Andrei Loktionov & Nathan Gerbe EVEN
Worst EV Forwards: Jordan Staal & Alex Semin -9
Best EV Defenseman: Jay Harrison -2
Worst EV Defensemen: Andrej Sekera & Ron Hainsey -7
The injuries forced Kirk Muller's hand a bit and he opted to load up the first line with the Staal brothers & Alexander Semin. The experiment didn't work out to well as this line was absolutely crushed at even strength. They were all non-factors offensively and gave up a boatload of chances on top of that. Some of it had to do with the Canes going in all-out conservative mode for the third period but a line with this much fire power having this kind of night at evens is concerning. The fact that they did nothing on the power play is also very troublesome. They weren't the only line to get steamrolled, though as the "second line" of Riley Nash, Chris Terry & Jeff Skinner was blanked at even strength when they played together.
The one positive for Carolina was their newly formed "third line" of Andrei Loktionov, Nathan Gerbe & Patrick Dwyer. They produced both of Carolina's even strength goals, both of which came after great transition plays by all three forwards, and they wer eht eonly unit to not finish way in the red in scoring chances. I was particularly impressed with Loktionov's game, as he had the best night offensively with three scoring chances, a power play goal and an assist. He's been okay in his first few games with the Canes, but this was the first time he was used outside of the fourth line and he did well with his minutes. This line has a lot of speed and Loktionov adds some more skill to it, which was evidenced by his pass to Dwyer on the third Carolina goal.
Jay Harrison also played a big role on Loktionov's goal by making the initial breakout pass to get the puck out of the zone, earning him a secondary assist. It's been a very rough season for him, but this was a nice game for him and he had to take on some extra mileage with Murphy going down with an injury. He still ended up with a negative chance differential, but he performed much better than the rest of the defense, who collectively had a tough night when it came to keeping play out of their own end. Each of them had their own contributions that don't show up here, but the numbers are still ugly overall. Brett Bellemore is who I thought stood out the most, though. He was excellent on the penalty kill and came up with a couple key blocks early in the game to preserve the lead for Carolina.
Blue Jackets Individual Scoring Chances
Blue Jackets On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Nick Foligno +8
Worst EV Forward: Blake Comeau +1
Best EV Defensemen: Fedor Tyutin & Dalton Prout +8
Worst EV Defenseman: Nikita Nikitin +1
The Jackets had a balanced attack with 13 different players recording a scoring chance and all four lines contributing. The Hurricanes had a lot of trouble containing the Umberger-Anisimov-Tropp line early in the game, as they produced three scoring chances in the first period alone and seemed to be the only one creating second & third chance opportunities on Khudobin. The rest of their forwards joined the fun later in the game and the Jenner-Johansen-Horton line came on strong in the third period, producing the Jackets only goal. Dubinsky's line also gave the Canes a lot of trouble, as their speed was very hard for Carolina to keep up with.
Like I said, the Jackets played well enough to win but they couldn't finish (most of that thanks to Khudobin) and the Hurricanes were able to capitalize on their chances to get a very lucky victory.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
Gerbe, Loktionov & Dwyer were the only Carolina line that didn't get wrecked at even strength. They spent most of the game out against Dubinsky's line and managed to fight them to a draw while coming out at least even in scoring chances against everyone else. The Jackets are a fast skating team, so it's not too surprising to see this unit do well against them, but it is surprising to see how well they did compared to the rest of the team. It's also nice to see Carolina's depth come through on a night where their top player struggled.
5v5 Zone Entries
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"Get the puck deep and retreat." That was the strategy for Carolina during the third period and it's pretty obvious to see here. They didn't attempt to create much offense and were more than content with playing it safe once they got a lead. It helped that they led for 90% of the game because this strategy probably wouldn't work in any other situation or in a game where they got average goaltending instead of what they got out of Khudobin.
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Outside of a couple breakdowns that led to Carolina goals, the Jackets had a pretty solid night in the neutral zone, carrying the puck in on half of their entries and generating a decent number of shots off dump-ins, as well. Dubinsky had an excellent night, producing all but four of his line's entries and carrying the puck into the zone eight times. Johansen, Jenner and Horton also had a solid game, although they could have produced more shots with how often their line carried the puck in.
5v5 Zone Exits
Carolina was down a solid puck-mover in Faulk and lost another one in Murphy early in the game, so the zone exits from their defense were very ugly. Made even worse by the fact that Hainsey & Sekera had to play on their off-side a little to pick up the slack for Murphy, as both fo them had underwhelming games in this regard. Sekera still had a good showing overall but Hainsey really struggled with five turnovers. Without the puck, he (and the rest of defense) were doing a lot of good things to prevent scoring chances but they struggled to advance the play forward and it's clear to see here. Carolina's third period strategy of "clear the zone and go for a change" also skews these numbers a little.
Carolina sat back in the neutral zone while Columbus was coming up the ice, so the Jackets ended up having a a nice night with zone exits. The only blunder I recall was James Wisniewski turning the puck over on a terrible pass up the middle but outside of that, most of their defensemen had decent games. Wisniewski, surprisingly, was the only defenseman who didn't advance the puck more than 20% of the time and almost all of their forwards advanced the play at least 33% of the time. These are above average numbers compared to the rest of the league and it makes the loss ten times as frustrating for the Jackets.