Since the 2011-12 season, Carolina fans have had a strained relationship with goaltender Cam Ward. Although still loved by many, Ward has struggled with injuries and poor play for the last three years and while not all of it is his fault, it's contributed to many of the Hurricanes problems and this year is probably the low point for him. Ward has missed time with a couple of injuries and his save percentage of .893 is the lowest it has been since his rookie season. Couple that with Anton Khudobin taking hold of the starting job and it's ultimately been a frustrating year for Ward but no one would have known that from last night's game against the Winnipeg Jets.
It's important to remember that it's just one game and could prove to be meaningless in the big picture, but it was still nice for Carolina fans to see Ward in top form as he backstopped the team to a 3-2 win over Winnipeg. He put on a goaltending clinic for most of the night and bailed the Hurricanes out of numerous situations to keep them in the game and ultimately preserve a win. Winnipeg came out with a strong push in the first period, outshooting Carolina 13-6 and holding the Canes without a scoring chance until the 9:30 mark. Taking a couple of penalties early, Carolina was under siege for most of the first period and Ward was there to save them (literally) from every tough situation.
Carolina managed to pick up the slack and played a strong second period, scoring three unanswered goals and taking the play to the Jets, but they still had to lean on Ward to escape Winnipeg with a victory. The Jets came out with a strong push in the third period, much like they did in the first, and the Hurricanes spent most of the frame scrambling in their own end, desperately trying to hang on. They managed to do just that, but it was mostly due to Winnipeg missing the net or Ward coming up big on most of their best scoring chances, his best one coming on a quick passing play between Evander Kane & Devin Setoguchi with eight minutes left.
There were some other standouts but it was Ward who stole the show and a win for the Hurricanes last night.
Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater
It felt like the ice was tilted to the left because that's where all the action was and the Hurricanes created almost 70% of their offense going to that end of the rink. I mentioned that they played a great second period and that's illustrated in both the Fenwick chart & the scoring chance report. They outshot Winnipeg 21-8, recorded 15 more shot attempts than the Jets and dominated them from a scoring chance standpoint. The Jets play a loose, quick brand of hockey and while this is something the Hurricanes normally struggle with, they seemed to adjust to it well in the second period and took advantage of all the open ice. They had their skating legs going and were doing an excellent job of outworking Winnipeg's defensemen along the boards to pin them into their own end and pressure them into making bad decisions with the puck.
Unfortunately, this was just one period and the Hurricanes were just as bad in the first and third periods. I mentioned that they were under siege early in the game and while the scoring chance report may not indicate this, they were scrambling for the first 20 minutes. The Jets caught them out of position a few times and if it wasn't for a couple of acrobatic saves by Ward (his best being a diving stick save on Bryan Little), this could have easily been a different game. Ward came up big again in the third period with a couple of timely saves including the aforementioned stop on Setoguchi and a big save through traffic on Blake Wheeler while the Jets had the extra attacker. Carolina's defensive play wasn't as spotty in this period, but they still had to rely on Ward to bail them out more than a few times and he was ultimately why they won in regulation.
Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances
Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Jordan Staal +5
Worst EV Forward: Drayson Bowman -3
Best EV Defensemen: Andrej Sekera, John-Michael Liles & Justin Faulk +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Brett Bellemore -3
The line shuffle continued for Carolina as Kirk Muller put Eric Staal on a line with Jiri Tlusty & Andrei Loktionov while putting Nathan Gerbe with Jordan Staal & Alexander Semin to star the second period. The move worked out fairly well, as Eric's line produced a goal off some good forechecking & a misplay by Winnipeg goaltender Al Montoya while Jordan's line dominated in possession, as usual.
Finding a good balance in the top-six has been a challenge for Muller because while Alex Semin has been able to work with almost anyone, the team is still very thin at right wing and it leaves one line short on scoring talent. On top of that, the Canes are also pretty thin at center and putting both Staals on the same line makes them very easy to match up against on the road. This is probably why they were broken up last night and Muller is now experimenting with some new lines yet again.
Both Jordan & Semin are good enough to form a nice first/second line no matter who is on their left wing and Gerbe has been a versatile player, so they aren't a concern. Eric's line with Tlusty & Loktionov is a different story. These three played very well & Loktionov's skillset seems to work well with Eric & Tlusty. He's very creative and dynamic, but he's similar to Gerbe in that he's always driving the net and hounding the puck when he gets a chance. This really helps create space for his linemates and part of the reason why he had such a good night in terms of shot differential. During 5v5 play, the Hurricanes outshot the Jets 28-11 when he was on the ice and that's impressive considering the Canes were on their heels for 2/3 of the game. He also took turns playing center with Eric on this line, so I'm interested to see if they get another game together.
Someone who might get another look on the Staal lines is Jeff Skinner, who had a nice rebound after a quiet game in Chicago on Friday night. Skinner played the second most even strength minutes among forwards (despite spending most of his time on Riley Nash's line) and looked more engaged offensviely than he has for the last couple of games. Skinner's scoring slumps are often magnified because of his "defensive" play and I always thought it was a little unfair because he does so much to drive possession even when he isn't lighting the lamp and last night was an example of that. His zone entry and net drive on Riley Nash's fluky goal shouldn't be overlooked either.
It was an interesting night for the defense overall. Andrej Sekera, Justin Faulk & Ron Hainsey were leaned on heavily due to Brett Bellemore getting benched in the middle of the second period. Sekera & Faulk were on the ice for most of the Canes offense in the second period and were in the black overall, but they struggled mightily in the third. Faulk's struggles were very noticeable. He found himself caught in no-man's land on the Bryan Little goal after chasing Michael Frolik behind the net and was nearly on the ice for the game-tying goal after getting beat to the inside by Blake Wheeler.
Luckily for him, the goal ended up being washed out due to "incidental contact" and the Canes lived to fight another day. There's a lot of concern going around about Faulk now and whether or not he has "hit a wall" in his development. He made some uncharacteristic turnovers & coverage mistakes that aren't expected from him and one has to wonder if he's at 100% after sustaining an injury about a month ago. Faulk's also taken on a lot of mileage for a kid his age, so it's also very possible that this is just fatigue setting in and a rough patch that he can recover from. Either way, it would be a wise move for the Hurricanes to lighten his workload over these last 11 games. He may have been a positive in scoring chances, but he was also on the ice for a lot of Winnipeg shots and that's very concerning for someone trusted to play against the opposition's best players.
Winnipeg Individual Scoring Chances
Winnipeg On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forwards: Blake Wheeler & Andrew ladd +3
Worst EV Defensemen: Jim Slater, Matt Halischuk & Eric Tangradi -2
Best EV Defenseman: Mark Stuart +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Zach Bogosian -4
I'm kind of surprised at Olli Jokinen's stats because I didn't notice him during the game and wouldn't have considered him as one of Winnipeg's most dangerous forwards. His line with Blake Wheeler & Dustin Byfuglien had their chances, though and Carolina had trouble containing them in the third period. The first line of Blake Wheeler, Michael Frolik & Andrew Ladd was also very dangerous and nearly made the Hurricanes pay a few times in the first period. They eventually got their reward with Frolik & Little connecting for a goal in the third period and combined for 13 shot attempts, 12 of them coming from Little & Ladd.
The Jets also had to lean on some of their top defensemen with Zach Bogosian leaving the game with an injury and they looked more dangerous without him. This is probably because they were pressing while down a goal, but the newly formed defense pairing of Jacob Trouba & Tobias Enstrom really gave the Canes trouble in the third period. These two took a lot of damage in their own end throughout the game, but they both can skate very well, lead breakouts on their own and add another dimension to their team's forecheck and Carolina got a brief glimpse of what they can do last night. These two were also very effective at closing gaps and preventing the Canes from entering the zone compared to Winnipeg's other defense pairings, who gave Carolina's forwards all the space in the world at the blue line. I don't know if they'll play together regularly, but I was impressed with what I saw from them.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
We're seeing something that hasn't happened often since the Olympic break and that's everyone in Carolina's top-six winning their matchups. Eric Staal's numbers got boosted from a dominating shift against Winnipeg's fourth line, but they still fought all of their other lines to a draw and Jordan's line did a fantastic job against Little & Jokinen's lines, who they spent a lot of the night matched up against. I'd also like to point out that they won all of their matchups against Winnipeg's top-four defense and really took advantage of Zach Bogosian.
5v5 Zone Entries
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Something missing from the top-six for most of the year is a winger who can handle the puck well enough to carry the mail through the neutral zone on a regular basis. This is hopefully where Loktionov can find his niche and possibly play a in a scoring role more frequently. Eric Staal is normally excellent in the neutral zone, but the Hurricanes system relies on their wingers more for zone entries and guys like Tlusty & Gerbe often resort to dump-and-chase play a little too much. Loktionov's the opposite in that he tries to gain the line with control of the puck almost every chance he gets and it adds a nice touch to whatever line he is on. We saw that last night and his line ended up having dominating night from a territorial standpoint. Jeff Skinner also had a very active game here and so did Jordan Staal, although those are to be expected from them at this point.
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This game had more dump-and-chase play than I thought because by the eye-test, this was a wide open contest with plenty of open ice to take advantage of. The Jets certainly looked like they were enjoying it for most of the night even if the numbers don't agree. Other than that, their numbers aren't terribly surprising. Their top-nine did most of the bullwork in the neutral zone and relied on transition plays to create offense. Their defense was a little less active than I suspected, though.
5v5 Zone Exits
Aside from Sekera & Liles, Carolina's defensemen had a very difficult time getting the puck out of their own end and the forwards had to bail them out a number of times. This is another area where Loktionov impressed and Gerbe, Dwyer & Skinner also had decent games here. Faulk also didn't have a terrible game when it came to zone exits but only one of his came while maintaining possession of the puck. He resorted to desperation clears & bank plays off the glass to get it out on most of his successful zone exits, which was fine given the game situation but not ideal otherwise.
Like Carolina, Winnipeg's defense also had a tough time advancing the play and most of it stems from Zach Bogosian & Mark Stuart having brutal outings. These two alone were responsible for over half of their defense's turnovers (which is impressive when you consider that Bogo missed the entire third period) and advanced the play on less than 10% of their zone exit attempts. That said, the rest of their defense and their forwards had solid games when it came to zone exits, Wheeler & Kane being the standouts up front.