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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Hurricanes even record before rare in-season break

Posted by on Sat, Dec 4, 2010 at 3:55 PM

Jeff Skinner, face of the Hurricanes future?
So, with nearly a third of the season gone, who are these Carolina Hurricanes, who thrilled the RBC Center crowd last night, taking a playoff-style contest 2-1 in overtime from the Colorado Avalanche?

After tonight’s game in Nashville, the Canes get a six-day break before their next game. It affords the coaching staff a mid-year moment to teach and install new systems. And it gives us time to step back and ask: Is this a scrappy and determined ensemble that can claw its way into a playoff spot and make a run at the Stanley Cup, like Philadelphia last year? Or is this a team just inconsistent enough to miss out on the playoff dance, but just good enough to miss out on the lottery draft picks?

This is the point in the season, before the turn of the year, when teams can still hope to improve upon their shortcomings through the first third of the year in time to make big moves in the standings. Once 2011 dawns and teams start obsessing about playoff seedings, clubs find it more difficult to leapfrog those above them in the standings as more games go beyond regulation and a consolation point is awarded even in defeat.

Also, in the Avalanche, the Canes were looking into a sort of a mirror: a young team, built on speed, lacking a superstar player as well as much of a difference between their top three lines. Youth movements like these require chemistry. Both teams have good work ethics, so it’s the covalent bonds that form on forward lines and between defensive pairings that will win games.

If chemistry is the key to winning hockey for non-star-studded lineups, then the goaltender is Mr. Wizard. The youngest players on the Canes have to feel confident with new dad Cam Ward behind them to bail them out when they make a mistake. In some games—such as the first period of the Avs game—one has to wonder if the dump and forecheck style that Paul Maurice has instituted serves them well against quick opponents. The Avs defense repeatedly beat Canes skaters to the puck and worked it up the boards to the neutral zone, springing counterattack after counterattack. But Ward held them in it, saving ten shots before the Canes managed their first one. Only two other goalies in the league have seen more shots than Ward has.

Trusting the young skaters to carry the puck through the neutral zone might require too much faith, though. Which brings us to another test tube in the chemistry set: veteran leadership. This could be the shortcoming in the Carolina lineup. In recent years, grizzled vets like Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Francis (both now on the coaching staff), Mark Recchi, and Doug Weight have kept the team focused on the ice and loose in the locker room, while also notching goals and assists with consistency. This year’s batch of veterans isn’t as consistently on the scoresheet, and doesn’t have the stature of the aforementioned greats, who will all likely be in the Hall of Fame before long. Erik Cole and Joni Pitkanen will never await that phone call, to be sure. Perhaps GM Jim Rutherford is waiting to see whether the Canes are above or below the playoff line as the March 2 trading deadline approaches to decide whether to bring a veteran on from another team.

Last night’s goal scorers for the Hurricanes display the youth movement at work. Jeff Skinner kicked the puck to his stick and roofed it over a seemingly impenetrable Craig Anderson early in the third period for the first Canes goal. In overtime, it was Brandon Sutter rushing down the right wing and beating Anderson with a sharp wrist shot to win the game. These goals spotlight where Carolina's best talent, and biggest dilemma, lies—right up the middle.

Sutter has been centering the third line all year, meaning he’s flanked by the wingers either not skilled or not working hard enough to be on the top two lines. Although he leads the team in plus/minus at +8, Sutter's 10 points are probably half what he'd have scored on the second line. He gets his points in front of the net, or working the puck out of corners to wingers waiting in the circles. Patrick Dwyer and Jiri Tlusty simply aren't adequate components to the equation.

It's because of the emergence of Skinner that Sutter finds himself down the depth chart. With each shift, Maurice is investing in the future by keeping Skinner at center instead of moving him to Eric Staal's wing. Although Skinner's getting enough points and attention to be a front runner for the Calder Trophy for best rookie, he's such a weakness in the faceoff circle (winning only 7 of the 28 he's been allowed to take) that his wingers have to take that responsibility. It makes his line begin play after each stoppage a little out of alignment.

Skinner, already, is the key to the Hurricanes lineup. If he plays above his age, then the Canes have two scoring lines, and can come at an opponent in waves with Sutter's line's ability to hold the puck in the offensive zone. But if Skinner is effectively checked by a physical team—as the Dallas Stars, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers have showed this year—then the only Cane opponents have to worry about is Staal.

Some nights, Staal shows the strain of the burden of carrying this team as its youth develops. Twice on a power play in the first period, head down, Staal tried fruitlessly to carry the puck diagonally through Colorado penalty killers to open up a shot for himself, leading to easy shorthanded rushes that nearly gave the Avs the first goal. He didn't trust his teammates to dig the puck out of the corner, or to handle a pass to the point.

If the Hurricanes want to get the most benefit from their extra practice time over this schedule break, they should work on faceoffs and their woeful penalty kill. Really, it's shocking that a team with Francis and Brind'Amour on the coaching staff should be dead last in the league on draws. Jussi Jokinen has acquitted himself well when playing on Skinner's wing, and newly acquired Ryan Carter has won 55 percent of his draws, but the regular centers have been dreadful. Tuomo Ruutu's at 40 percent; Sutter's below that. And it's killing the team. They lose the draw to open a power play and spend the first 25 seconds of their man advantage chasing down the puck. Ward makes a great save and then has to face an open point shot after the opponents win the ensuing draw. Francis and Brind'Amour need to dust off their old sweaters and host a clinic; no one goes home until they've beaten old No. 10 and No. 17 five times in a row at the dot.

Shorthanded, the Canes rank 27th in the league. Some of this has to do with the faceoff losses, as teams can execute set plays that start with an uncontested slapshot from an opposing defenseman. But the other factor is the lack of overall physicality on this Canes roster. Even Tim Gleason has seemed to be a pacifist this season. As games tighten as teams fight for playoff spots, Carolina players will need to find more malice in their souls. Or Rutherford will need to find someone more imposing and skilled than Troy Bodie.

Along the blueline, Jay Harrison and Jamie McBain together have tallied just nine points—all assists—and are a collective +2. Expectations were high for McBain after he played so well in a late-season call up last year, but you have to wonder whether he might benefit now from some time in Charlotte. He seems afraid to shoot the puck, averaging less than a shot a game in almost 18:00 of ice each night. Is it a confidence issue?

Through all these trials, Carolina is 11-11-3. If the season ended today, the Canes would miss out on the last playoff spot by four points, to division rival Atlanta. Carolina has yet to play any of their six games against the Thrashers; these contests will likely answer those big questions at the beginning of this column.

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