The Hurricanes are at a point of the season where there isn't a whole lot to play for from the fan's point of view. Sure, the playoffs are still a "mathematical possibility" but it's going to take a lot of help and it's unlikely that this squad will pull it off. It's tough to figure out what's going through a player's head when they're on a team that's likely heading for an early off-season, but the common answer you'll get from them is that they are taking things "one game at a time" and making a good impression for next year. That's really all they can do at this point and there are a few players on the Hurricanes making a good case to remain part of this team's future while others might be falling out of the picture.
One player showing that he wants to stick around is Anton Khudobin, who earned his first shutout of the season and bailed the Hurricanes out more than a couple times in making 35 saves. The team's defense may have crumbled since the Olympic break, but Khudobin has been there to give the Hurricanes a chance in a lot of games the Hurricanes had no business being in. Not that last night's game was one of those, but it could have been a lot closer if it wasn't for him. Another player who showed that he can be part of the solution is Andrei Loktionov, who had a strong three-zone performance despite not making his presence felt on the scoresheet. Jiri Tlusty also delivered with a couple of goals and Jeff Skinner continued his modest point streak by adding another goal.
The rest of the season should be a tougher test, as Florida is in a similar situation to the Hurricanes and Carolina has a lot of games remaining against teams trying to make the playoffs, but there are guys on this team with something to play for. Even with those standouts, this was still an uglier performance by Carolina than the final score indicates. Strong goaltending (mostly from Khudobin and Peters) has gotten the Hurricanes out of plenty of jams and it helped make this win much less stressful than it could have been.
Fenwick Timeline from Extra Skater
If you thought playing the Panthers was like looking in a mirror then you aren't alone. Despite getting shutout, Florida actually created plenty of good chances and weren't grossly outplayed. They just couldn't finish (Thanks Anton!) and committed some brutal defensive mistakes that resulted in goals. All three Carolina goals came off the rush that were made possible due to over-aggressive plays by their defensemen and their goalies didn't have much of a chance on them. Sounds a lot like the Hurricanes doesn't it?
There were actually portions of this game where I thought the Canes were getting hemmed in too much and had to lean on Khudobin a little more than they should. Most of this took place in the second period where it was basically a session of firewagon hockey and the Hurricanes were able to take advantage of Florida's miscues by getting a couple goals. Carolina did a nice job of tightening up and shutting the door in the third period, though. They were outshot and let Florida take the play to them, but Florida didn't create many dangerous scoring chances, so you could say that the defense did their job to close the game. This is what I would call "weathering a storm," as opposed to the Blue Jackets & Jets games last week where the Canes were on their heels for the final 20 minutes.
Hurricanes Individual Scoring Chances
Hurricanes On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Eric Staal +4
Worst EV Forward: Nathan Gerbe -4
Best EV Defenseman: Ron Hainsey +3
Worst EV Defenseman: Andrej Sekera & John-Michael Liles -2
The theme with Muller lately has been to go with whichever line is working and the lucky trio for this game was Eric Staal, Andrei Loktionov and Jiri Tlusty. These three did not have a great performance on Tuesday night, but they rebounded well and produced most of the Hurricanes offense tonight. Tlusty was easily the most noticeable, producing four scoring chances but the unit as a whole produced eight and Loktionov has been a surprisingly good fit here. If there's one thing that Loktionov has excelled at, it's handling the puck in the neutral zone and taking advantage of almost any gap in the defense when he sees it. This has helped take some burden off Tlusty for zone entries and gives this line more of an offensive flare. Having him and Eric alternate as the wings on this line also helps since the Hurricanes tend to rely on them more for entries than their centers. Tlusty's also more free to find the soft spot in the defense now that he doesn't have to do as much in the neutral zone, something he clearly did well tonight.
As good as that line was, most of the Hurricanes forwards didn't have as good of a night. Patrick Dwyer & Jeff Skinner teamed up to score the third goal of the game on an odd-man rush, but the second & third lines didn't do much offensively and got burned in their own end a few times. Jordan Staal's line had an uncharacteristically bad game here and didn't see much ice time in the third period either. Their minutes went to Eric's line and Riley Nash's with the latter taking most of their draws in the defensive zone. Muller has leaned on Jordan's line heavily through the last couple of weeks, so I would guess that he saw last night's game as a chance to get them some rest since they clearly didn't have their best game. Using Nash to defend a lead is kind of an odd choice, though. Especially when you compare it to how he, Skinner & Lindholm have been used most of the year. This is also one of those games where Malhotra is typically used more, but he also didn't see much ice time last night.
As a whole, the defense struggled and i think everyone had their bad moments. Justin Faulk & Andrej Sekera didn't have many noticeable errors, but they were on the ice for five scoring chances, which is a little concerning. Faulk did make a nice outlet pass that started the rush on Tlusty's second goal, though. Not to be outdone, Brett Bellemore played a part on Tlusty's goal, making the "breakout" pass that deflected off Panther defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and right to Eric Staal to start a two-on-one. Outside of that, I thought he struggled a little. He made a bad turnover by trying to make a pass up the middle and he and Jay Harrison seemed to have issues keeping the puck out of their own end. The only member of the defense corps that came out in the black was Ron Hainsey, who didn't stand out that much but he's an unsung hero for a reason.
Panthers Individual Scoring Chances
Panthers On-Ice Scoring Chances
Best EV Forward: Tomas Fleischmann & Scottie Upshall +6
Worst EV Forwards: Quinten Howden & Jesse Winchester -3
Best EV Defenseman: Ed Jovanovski +5
Worst EV Defenseman: Erik Gudbranson -4
Florida's a club building for the future and they have a bright one up front with plenty of skilled forwards. Their second line centered by young Vincent Trocheck is a good example of this, as they created the majority of the Panthers chances and were their most dangerous forward unit by far. They actually could have had a couple of goals with how many looks they were getting but they had trouble hitting the net (Scottie Upshall being the main culprit here) and Khudobin shut down the ones they did get on goal. These three were also doing a good job of crashing the net for second & third chance opportunities and really gave the Hurricanes a scare in the second period. With Jonathan Huberdeau & Aleksander Barkov out of the lineup, Florida doesn't have a lot of top-end talent but their forward depth actually isn't terrible and I'd look for guys like Trocheck and Bjugstad to really improve over the next couple of years.
Head-to-Head at Five-on-Five
Florida didn't pay a lot of attention to forward matchups, but they did make sure to have the Campbell/Kulikov pairing on the ice at the same time as Eric Staal's line. This ended up being somewhat of a draw in terms of scoring chances, but Staal's line got the better end of it by producing the first goal of the game against them. They also had a lot of success against Florida's second defense pairing and the Pirri line. Unfortunately, the matchups didn't go so well for the rest of the forwards. Jordan's line had a rough night and Nash's line didn't win any of their matchups despite producing a goal. Hainsey/Liles also struggled against Florida's top-six but made up for it against their depth forwards, which is pretty strange for a road game.
5v5 Zone Entries
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Here you see what I was talking about with Loktionov and zone entries. He along with Eric Staal ran the table in the neutral zone and drove the bus on the first line while Tlusty was allowed to freelance a little more. In theory, Semin could do the same thing but that combination hasn't been working this year for whatever reason. It might be because the Hurricanes rely on their left wingers for entries and put Tlusty on his off-wing for most of this game but whatever the reason is, hopefully they can keep it up. Nash & Skinner also had decent games in terms of entries but couldn't do much after they gained the line. It's a shame because Florida's defensemen were playing very aggressive at the opposing blue-line and got caught more than a few times, resulting in the Hurricanes being able to carry the puck in more times than they are used to.
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The "Open Door Policy" in the neutral zone continues for the Hurricanes and just about everyone on the Panthers took advantage of it. It's the risk you take when you get into a run-and-gun game and the Panthers seemed to give everyone on their team the green light to pinch when necessary. They had three defensemen with multiple carry-ins and one of them nearly produced goal with Kulikov going end-to-end, undressing Jay Harrison in the process. The Hurricanes didn't pay for it, but the Panthers were getting a lot more offense on entries than they were and it showed here.
5v5 Zone Exits
Three of the Hurricanes goals came off successful breakouts, although one of them was a tad fluky, and it was nice to see because the rest of their zone exits weren't as good. Faulk, Sekera & Harrison were the only defensemen to advance the puck on more than 20% of their attempts and the latter didn't take on much of a burden here. They weren't turning the puck over that often, but getting the puck out cleanly seemed to be a hassle for almost everyone on the Hurricanes last night.
Not too many standouts on the Panthers defense with zone exits, although both Jovanovski & Olsen had solid games. The rest were either average or slightly below that mark. The same can be said for their forwards, although Upshall & Bjugstad both had impressive exit rates.