Playing to win vs. playing not lose

In the first two games of the year, the Hurricanes have entered the third period with a lead and each game ended with a completely different result. On the home opener Friday night, the Hurricanes held a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Red Wings at the start of the third period. That quickly turned into a one-goal lead after the Wings scored in the first minute of the period and they would end up tying the game late in the third period while playing with the extra attacker.

Sunday afternoon against Philadelphia, the Canes found themselves in a similar situation where they entered the final minute of the game hanging onto a one-goal lead. Only this time they were able to get the job done and seal up a regulation win. What was so different about the game Sunday compared to the season opener against Detroit? Playing a weaker opponent probably helped, but the Hurricanes forechecking was much more aggressive that game and their team defense was focused more on retrieving the puck instead of just sitting back and blocking shots. Again, it might be easier to pull off this kind of strategy against a weak puck-possession team like the Flyers, but Carolina might be better off playing with this kind of mentality in the long run.

Tripp Tracy mentioned during the broadcast that Hurricanes assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour stated that he wanted the team to "deliver a knock out blow" to the Flyers in the third period instead of simply trying to hang onto the lead and not lose the game. The Canes didn't get the insurance goal, but they were certainly much better in the third period against Philadelphia than they were against Detroit and this is evident when you look at how much they controlled the play.

This is the Fenwick timeline of the Detroit game, taken from the fantastic hockey statistics web site, Extra Skater. What these graphs show are the number of shot attempts from each team as the game progresses, the vertical axis showing the shot totals and the horizontal axis showing the time. You can see that the Wings were peppering the Hurricanes with a lot of shots throughout the night and they really hammered the Canes in the last two minutes of the game, some of which was played while they had the net empty and an extra attacker on the ice. It's completely normal for a team to give up a lot of shots while playing with a man down because it's easier for the other team to control territorial play, but the Wings recorded at least 6-8 shot attempts with the extra attacker and it eventually paid off with them scoring the game-tying goal late in the third period.

Compare this to the Flyers game you'll notice a huge improvement on Carolina's end.

The Hurricanes were still playing somewhat of a "conservative" game because they didn't do much offensively in the third period, but they didn't give the Flyers much of anything either. Philadelphia was outshot 7-3 during that frame and had less than 15 shot attempts according to the graph above. Considering they were outshot 16-11 in the third period by Detroit, this is a pretty drastic improvement for the Canes from a defensive standpoint. They also didn't allow the Flyers to do much of anything while they had the extra attacker, which is pretty huge when you compare it to the damage Detroit did during that situation. What were the Hurricanes doing that was so effective, though?

It really comes down to aggressive defensive play and strong puck pursuit, something that was absent Friday night but evident on Sunday afternoon. Some screenshots from the final minute of both games do a good job of illustrating this point. Let's start with the loss against Detroit.

Here we see the Wings entering the zone with Henrik Zetterberg carrying the puck in. You can see the two defensemen (Justin Faulk & Andrej Sekera) give Zetterberg some respect and back up into the defensive zone. Also of note here is Jordan Staal back-checking and putting pressure on Zetterberg to make a decision with the puck.

Staal stays with Zetterberg the entire way and eventually forces him to send a pass around the boards. Fortunately for Zetterberg, he has an open man there in Daniel Alfredsson and the Wings can maintain possession in Carolina's zone. He also has time and space to make a play there because Sekera is too far away from the puck to do anything.

Alfredsson eventually works the puck back to the point where Pavel Datsyuk is able to keep the play going. Eric Staal tries to make a play on the puck but Datsyuk eludes him and the rest of the Hurricanes pictured are opting to sit back and watch the play and possibly get into the shooting lanes if the Wings try to set something up from the point. Notice that Zetterberg is standing unguarded in the left faceoff circle.

The Wings get it to Zetterberg and he is able to create a shot on goal. The Hurricanes have this play well-read and Zetterberg's only option is to get it on goal from a pretty bad angle, a shot which has a low probability at ending up in the back fo the net. Johan Franzen is also trying to screen Ward at the front of the net, but Sekera does a pretty good job fending him off and making this an easy save for the Carolina goaltender. So the Canes come away unscathed here, but what happens after the play is where the breakdown begins.

Zetterberg's shot created a rebound and the Wings got to it, which allowed them to maintain possession and set up a new play in the Carolina zone. The Canes were beaten to the puck and are now stuck back where they were a few seconds ago, watching the play develop.

Detroit sets up another play from the point and Kronwall is able to work it to Zetterberg on the half boards without much of an issue. Carolina had Eric Staal challenging Kronwall at the point but other than that, they showed the Wings a lot of respect and are anticipating what their next move will be. That said, Carolina still has this covered well and can force Zetterberg to take another shot from a bad angle, or at least that's how it appears.

A few seconds later, Zetterberg decides to not shoot and go behind the net to set up a play. He has a lot of options available. Weiss is in the high slot while Pavel Datsyuk & Johan Franzen are at the side of the net. The two Carolina defensemen also have a few things they can do. They can either stay at the side of the net and cover the two Detroit forwards or one of them can challenge Alfredsson for the puck and possibly get a clearing attempt. That's the riskier choice, but all Zetterberg has to do is make a good pass and the Wings get a golden scoring chance. All in all, this is a bad situation for Carolina to be in late in the game.

Zetterberg hits Daniel Alfredsson, who swoops in unnoticed, and he is able to get a free shot at Ward from a pretty good scoring area.

Alfredsson's shot completely misses the net but it creates a rebound that goes right to Datsyuk at the side of the net. Datsyuk is able to get good positioning on Sekera and get a chance in from close range. This doesn't go in, but it creates a net mouth scramble and all hell breaks loose after that.

Alfredsson, Franzen & Datsyuk are crashing the net while everyone on Carolina tries to swarm on the puck and get possession. While all of this is going on, Henrik Zetterberg and Stephen Weiss are standing right there in the slot and both are ready to retrieve the loose puck that might come out of the dogpile in the crease.

The puck eventually comes free and Zetterberg is able to get a shot on goal with plenty of time left on the clock. All Carolina can do is either block it or try to force it off his stick. Zetterberg's first shot was blocked but he was able to bury the second chance after the rebound went right to him and no one on Carolina could retrieve the puck.

All of this started with Carolina allowing a controlled zone entry to the Red Wings and the team playing way too passive in their own end. The Wings have a lot of dangerous forwards, so I understand not wanting to be over-aggressive and make a mistake but sometimes, being the first one to make a move isn't a bad thing. If Carolina had made a play on Zetterberg behind the net or deny him a controlled zone entry at the blue-line, then they could have put themselves in a much better situation than they were here. Instead, the Wings were the team controlling the play and all the Hurricanes could do was watch and try to react to whatever they were going to do next.

Things were much different against Philadelphia.

Here we see Riley Nash & Andrej Sekera converging on two Philadelphia forwards in attempt to win a battle for a loose puck. This was seconds after the Flyers dumped the puck into the zone and pulled the goaltender while doing so. The situation here is somewhat different because the Hurricanes didn't allow a controlled zone entry, but you can see how aggressive Carolina is at getting to the loose puck and making sure the Flyers don't have the time or space to set up a play.

Despite the Hurricanes aggressive play, the Flyers come away with the puck and get it to Andrej Mezsaros at the point. However, Carolina is in much better position here as they have two players in the shooting lane and Alexander Semin is able to get over to the point and obstruct Mezsaros' shot so that it ends up being not very threatening at all. The Flyers have three players in the net-mouth area, to bang away at a rebound, so Semin being able to get in the way of this shot made a big difference.

Mezsaros' shot ends up deflecting to the corner and the Flyers come away with the puck and Vincent Lecavalier tries to set up play from behind the net, similar to what the Red Wings did in the previous game. However, Carolina reads this situation much better and takes away most of Lecavalier's options. Jeff Skinner has Matt Read covered and Andrej Sekera is prepared to take the shot away from Wayne Simmonds (circled) if Lecavalier chooses to pass to him. Justin Faulk is also there to protect the side of the net and deflect any passes that might come in his area. Factor in Riley Nash pressuring Lecavalier and the Flyers are the team that has to react quickly here instead of the other way around.

Lecavalier is able to get the pass off but Carolina has enough players there that Simmonds can't get a shot away and it ends up being negated. Now all the Canes have to do is retrieve the puck and kill as much time as possible. Are they successful?

Riley Nash wins the race to the puck and does a great job of protecting himself along the boards so that the Flyers can't take it away from him. He also has an outlet option in Jeff Skinner and should be able to chip a pass to him if he continues to maintain possession and get a pass to him on his backhand.

Nash gets the pass to Skinner and he has a lot of open ice to work with and can kill at least 10-20 seconds off the clock as long as he doesn't do anything careless.

Skinner chips the puck to himself along the boards, past Wayne Simmonds, and puts himself in good position to salt the game away by getting the empty net goal. Even if he doesn't do that, he can still drain at least 10 seconds off the clock and prevent the Flyers from getting another chance in the offensive zone, which is probably more important in this instance.

Skinner gets the puck deep, ends up beating out Mark Streit & Andrej Meszaros to it and spends the next 10 seconds or so pinning himself along the boards and make it tough for the Flyers to regain possession. He didn't deliver the "knock out blow" like Brind'Amour was hoping for, but Skinner effectively took 10-15 seconds off the clock and wore out the Flyers defensemen in the process.

Thanks to Skinner's hard work, the Flyers have a little under 40 seconds to operate with and they have to change personnel because Streit & Mezsaros had been on the ice for so long. Skinner also allowed Carolina to make a change of their own and they were able to handle the Flyers attack almost perfectly. The Flyers try to enter the zone with one forechecker, but all Streit can do is dump the puck in because Jordan Staal is aggressive on him and the defense tandem (Hainsey/Bellemore) have a road block set up in the netural zone. With the Flyers getting the puck in and needing a change, they take off about 5-10 more seconds off the clock.

Jordan Staal is able to get to the loose puck before anyone on Philadelphia and he gets it to Radek Dvorak for an easy clear.

Later in the sequence, the Flyers try to enter the zone for one last time, but the Hurricanes swarm on the puck-carrier (Jakub Voracek) and don't give him much room to do anything. Dvorak in particular does a good job at converging on Voracek so that he can't set up a play and the puck ends up bouncing to the corner. Ron Hainsey would clear the puck a few seconds later and that was all the Hurricanes needed to do to set up a win.

There are some external factors to consider here, the main one being that the Wings are a much better team than the Flyers, but I really love the way Carolina played in the last minute of this game and would like to see them do more of that. When playing with the extra man, the goal is usually to force the defending team into making tough decisions. The Wings did that to the Canes but it was a complete role reversal against the Flyers. Successful teams are ones who can consistently keep the puck away from their opponents and this isn't limited to even strength play. Teams like the Red Wings have won championships on this strategy and I'd like to see the Hurricanes continue to incorporate this style of play.