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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Canes Report: Oy, Canada

Posted by on Thu, Dec 19, 2013 at 8:21 AM

Carolina Hurricanes, 14-13-7, third place in the Metropolitan Division

Last week (1-1-2):
12/9: @Vancouver 2, Carolina 0
12/10: @Edmonton 5, Carolina 4 (OT)
12/12: @Calgary 2, Carolina 1 (OT)
12/14: Carolina 3, @Phoenix 1

This week: 12/20 Washington; 12/21 @Tampa Bay; 12/23 Columbus

Wins are harder to come by out west. Western Conference teams, for a few seasons now, are bigger, faster and, well, better than their eastern foes. The interleague record is an embarrassment for teams in our time zone.

Its a gratuitous holiday cheerleaders shot. Youre welcome.
So, if you’re a glass-half-full person, the four points that the Hurricanes got out of a four-game, six-night road trip out west are pretty sweet.

The Canucks shut out the Canes, 2-0, but Carolina deserved more than nothing for the work, missing a last-minute chance to tie matters with the empty net behind them when a shot destined for the Vancouver goal caromed instead off Eric Staal’s leg.

Matters in Edmonton could have been different, too, if the officials had chosen to call any of several blatant high-stick penalties against the Oilers. Tim Gleason’s mug was raked in a first period dominated by the home team, and then Jeff Skinner took sticks twice—including in the final minute of regulation after he’d just tied the game. But Edmonton was given a power play in overtime on an iffy boarding call on Justin Faulk and took the extra point to cap a fast-paced 5-4 win.

Skinner then had a chance to put Carolina ahead with a penalty shot with just five minutes left in regulation in Calgary, but goalie Karri Ramo closed the five-hole. In overtime, Calgary avoided the shootout by scoring with just four seconds on the clock.

Now let’s talk glass-half-empty.

Good teams find a way to get the Vancouver game to overtime, and figure out how to beat the Edmonton goalie a fifth time for the outright win. Leaving a point on the ice each night, the Canes aren’t a good team. They’re an almost-good team. Fortunately the rest of the Metropolitan Division has been as mediocre, so Carolina’s in play for one of the playoff seeds that goes to the top three finishers.

Skinner’s hot: Goals in three straight. Eight in the last seven games. That swagger. Those moves. That smile on the bench. And he’s got Eric Staal all over the scoresheet too (2G, 3A in 3 games). Stand next to Jeff Skinner right now and something good will happen to you.

More than any other Canes player, Skinner fascinates me. It’s like he’s a battle between good and evil unto himself. Since it’s his fourth season already, you can forget that he’s only been of legal drinking age since May. After 31 goals his rookie year, he started getting roughed up his sophomore season, notched some concussions, and set aside the joy of that first season for a kind of anger last year. A lot of jawing at opponents around the faceoff circle, retaliatory penalties, benchings for not backchecking. Anger corrupted his game—he was a -21 in just 42 games.

He’s missed time with injuries this year, too, but he’s in plus territory and is almost a point-a-game player. He must have summered in Mordor and dropped the Ring into the river of fire.

Shorties galore: Although their penalty kill is around the league average, the Canes are tied with the Flames for the most shorthanded goals with six. Weirdly, Carolina has scored all of those on the road. Eric Staal and Pat Dwyer each have two shorties so far.

Worth watching again: Eric Staal's shorthanded semi-breakaway early in the third period in Edmonton was a beaut. Bursting down the wing, he pump-faked his shot to get Devan Dubnyk to go down. Then Staal simply slung the puck over the goalie like tossing your jacket on the bed at the end of a long day. Smooth as all the liquor they advertise during game broadcasts.

Snooze bar: Do the Canes know that the opening puck drop isn’t ceremonial? Carolina let their opponent score first in all four games on this trip. Ho hum. At the start, the Canes look like they bought tickets to the games.

Vancouver scored 3:35 in. Edmonton took less than half that time to score first, overwhelming Carolina for the entire first period. It took Phoenix goon Paul Bissonnette six minutes to put the Coyotes ahead, his first goal in over a calendar year. At least Calgary didn’t go ahead until the second period, but then their general manager had been fired the morning of the game so maybe they were distracted.

Bad opening frames have been an issue in Carolina for years. Before Kirk Muller looked down at his shoes and shook his head about it, Paul Maurice looked down at his shoes and shook his head about it. It’s hard to know what the coaching staff can do, but certainly there must be something—maybe even something stupid. Maybe any Canes player scoring in the first five minutes of the game gets to wear a red hard hat after the game? Or carry around a special golf club? It sounds youth-league, but this is the kind of cheesy thing that can draw a team’s attention to an ongoing issue when simply talking about it has been tuned out.

Peters takes the crease: Justin Peters started all but the Edmonton game, and stopped 89 of the 93 shots he faced—a fantastic .957 save percentage. Cam Ward took the spot in the schedule that a backup usually gets, giving up a five-spot to the Oilers in the middle game of three in four days for the Canes.

Ladies and gentlemen, Justin Peters is our starting goalie now. Deal with it.

Carolina is also carrying Anton Khudobin on the roster, since any demotion would expose a goalie to a certain waivers claim. Pretty good bet that, with each quality Peters game, Khudobin is texting his agent about possible destinations.

Between the lines: Clear of his latest concussion, Alex Semin returned to the ice halfway through the trip. But now that Eric Staal is clicking with other wingers, Semin is bouncing around the lines. Muller tried him with Jiri Tlusty on Riley Nash’s wing as a third line. Now he’ll skate on the second line with Nathan Gerbe and Jordan Staal.

Tack själv! That’s “thank you” in Swedish. It’s what Sweden’s hockey fans are saying to Canes general manager Jim Rutherford for loaning rookie winger Elias Lindholm to their World Junior Championship team. Hosted in Sweden this year, the tournament begins the day after Christmas and ends Jan. 5. Expect Lindholm to be gone for that whole stretch—he was part of the silver medal-winning team last year.

A Chicagoan aside: I watched the Blackhawks demolish the Flyers the other night, 7-2. Their five-goal second period impressed upon me just how ambitious every single player on the Hawks is.

To a man, the Hawks constantly attacked, using every idea and skill at their disposal. They aspire. So you have someone like third-line center Andrew Shaw making really high-end finesse plays even as he barges around the ice. Fourth-line winger Brandon Bollig does Jagr-like switchbacks in the corner in order to buy time for his linemates to converge on the goal. Bollig’s in the corner battling but with his head up, watching the entire zone for a play to develop. And then he wrists the puck at the crease as his linemates arrive there, putting the right touch on the puck for there to be a scoring chance.

Then I watch the Canes and the fourth-liners are at all times aware that they are the fourth line. So they always play like fourth-liners, textbook. Their objective is to get on the ice, ensure nothing happens, and dump the puck so they can change. They want to put up zeroes across the stat sheet, and they have no imagination above that. They are not there to be creative, so they are not creative. The first two lines score goals, not us. We skate zeroes.

You will be average if the bottom half of your roster plays like robots, skating on and getting off the ice 35 seconds later without event. There's not a single guy on the Blackhawks like that. And they’re best in the league.

The western trip is behind the Canes. Next up are teams in direct competition for those bottom seeds in the east. Carolina could use a dose of Chicago’s intensity now.

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