What words come to mind when one hears “Carolina Hurricanes”? Depending on who is asked, it could be their star players, their long playoff drought, or the Stanley Cup won back in 2006. But “Top 10 defense” certainly wouldn’t come to anyone’s mind when it comes to the Hurricanes. After all, they don’t really have a true #1 defenseman, and their defense is mostly composed of players that were considered expendable by other teams. On paper, it’s a very underwhelming roster.
That makes the play of the Carolina defense this year all the more impressive. After years of watching some truly questionable decisions by Hurricanes defensemen, Carolina fans are finally seeing what a solid defense can do to help the team and its goaltenders.
A Rough Start
First impressions are always the most lasting one, and the Hurricanes did not make a good first impression this season. They went completely winless in October (0-6-2) and gave up 31 goals in those eight games. It was a rough time for the team and its players. After a 5-0 loss to Calgary, Riley Nash spoke about the team’s defensive struggles.
“It’s not just offense. It’s defense, too. We gave them five goals and hung Ward out to dry,” Nash said. “We’ve got to get back to simple things: working and not worrying about the offense. Keep working and working, and if it comes, it comes.”
Head coach Bill Peters echoed that statement in his post-game comments.
“Real concerned that we didn’t stick with it. We looked like we didn’t believe, and then everybody starts trying to do each other’s job,” Peters said. “All of a sudden there’s duplication, guys open, back-door tap-ins and it looks unorganized. That’s what we saw tonight.”
Despite the poor start to the season, Peters kept the players upbeat and believing that if they put forth the effort, things would turn around for them. Though it took longer than expected, and too long as far as any possible playoff chances are concerned, the play of late has shown that Peters was correct in his assessment.
Seriously? Top 10?
Despite their appearance on paper, the defense and goaltending of the Hurricanes are carrying the team at the moment, and defensive coach Steve Smith deserves much of the credit.
After giving up 31 goals in those first eight games, a GA/GP of 3.87, the Hurricanes have righted the defensive ship and locked down tight. Since November 1st, the Hurricanes have given up only 68 goals in 31 games, a GA/GP of 2.19. That’s among the top defensive performances in the league during that time span, with the likes of the Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks.
In addition, Carolina’s defense has given up an average of only 27.8 shots against per game, tied with the St. Louis Blues for 5th league-wide. The Hurricanes also have a penalty kill that ranks #6 in the league, while being 2nd in fewest penalties taken. They were tested on Friday, facing off against the Philadelphia Flyers and their 6th-ranked powerplay. The Canes went a perfect 3-for-3 in the penalty kill.
“That’s part of the details that the coaches bring out in our players,” Jordan Staal said after the game. “It really shows the way we play defensively.”
Perhaps the most encouraging fact of this improved defense is that it’s been sustainable. In December, the Hurricanes allowed two or less goals in 11 of the 14 games played (not counting shootout or empty net goals). This month appears to be more of the same, after consecutive 2-1 victories over the Flyers and the Boston Bruins, outshooting their opponents 62-44 in those games.
A Big Test Early in the Month
Tonight, the Hurricanes will face off against the red hot Nashville Predators, who have earned points in eight of their past nine games. In a strange twist, the Predators appear to juxtapose the Hurricanes this season. After spending years with Barry Trotz and his defensive system, the Predators hired Peter Laviolette as their new coach and he’s brought a spark of life to a normally dormant Nashville offense, which is tied for 7th in the league for goals per game.
The Hurricanes won a 2-1 game in the last matchup between the two teams, but the Predators have scored at least 3 goals in their past eight games, so yet another 2-1 game may be a tough task for the new and improved Top 10 Carolina defense.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.