Fans of the Carolina Hurricanes are watching other teams in the NHL playoffs, as they have done now for nine seasons in a row. This can be a difficult time, as frustration with the home team reaches new levels every year. But, it can also be a learning experience for the Hurricanes, especially if their coaches and players are watching. The play of the Vegas Golden Knights is providing two good lessons that the ‘Canes could stand to learn.
Golden Knights Beating the Odds
The Golden Knights are the hottest story in hockey. They beat the Winnipeg Jets Friday night 3-2 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their Conference Finals clash. For a team that was a 500-1 shot to make the Stanley Cup Finals, and also win the Stanley Cup, to find itself on the cusp of beating those odds is an amazing thing. The Golden Knights are that amazing.
They emerged as 7-2 favorites to win the Stanley Cup at the sportsbook William Hill after winning their first playoff game against the San Jose Sharks. From 500-1 to 7-2 is a world apart in sports wagering, and the Golden Knights have been a world apart in the annals of NHL franchises’ inaugural season success. They are currently five wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Hurricanes Should Pay Attention
Watching this assemblage of players that their previous teams did not want enough to protect them in the expansion draft, a couple of characteristics standout that would be great for the Hurricanes to emulate in the seasons to come. At first glance, these characteristics don’t seem earth-shattering, but for a team that has not made the playoffs in part because they have lacked these characteristics, paying attention could go a long way.
Goaltender Play Must Improve
This may easily fall into the “Captain Obvious” category, but after watching the Golden Knights’ playoff run, it is glaringly obvious that goaltender play is the solid foundation that the Hurricanes must have in order to compete for a post-season slot. Marc-André Fleury has stood on his head repeatedly during the playoffs, and can legitimately be looked at as crucial to the Golden Knights’ success. For example:
Good Thursday morning.
This Marc-Andre Fleury save still happened.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) May 17, 2018
The Hurricanes have had average goaltender play for the past several years, with what can best be described as horrible goaltender play last season by their starter. Scott Darling was lacking at times in even the most basic of goaltending skills — a mystery after his successful time with the Chicago Blackhawks as a backup to Corey Crawford. Most of the time it seemed that Darling’s challenges were mental and that he just needed a reset to get his head right.
Last week at Sportsnet Sonny Sachdeva wrote about Hurricanes’ general manager Don Waddell and his interview on NHL Today. Sachdeva quoted Waddell as having said,
We all know we need to address our goaltending. It’s something that we know we need to be better at.
Waddell added the following when asked specifically about 2017-18 tandem Scott Darling and Cam Ward:
We know we need to have a change there — we know we can’t bring the same two guys back. Scott Darling came to camp last year probably not in the best condition, and we never got him to where he was back in Chicago. … We feel that there’s still something there, and we’re going to do everything we can to put Scott in the best situation to have success.
Ward has been a better than average goaltender for his entire career with the Hurricanes, and he wants to play. Darling has $4 million that says he needs to step his game up. If he can’t, then the Hurricanes need to do whatever it takes to get a number one goaltender. As Fleury is showing, it’s a must-have to contend for the Stanley Cup.
Play in the Crease
During his tenure as the head coach of the Hurricanes, Bill Peters would preach repeatedly that his young team needed to get in front of the goal and go for the “greasy goals.” It’s not an easy or even desirable place to hang out, but watching the Golden Knights shows that it is crucial. In Game 4 versus the Winnipeg Jets they took the lead, 2-1 when they were in the right place at the right time:
So many times the Hurricanes have missed opportunities to score because they were not in the right place at the right time to bang in a rebound. The goal by Tomáš Nosek to put the Golden Knights ahead of the Jets was a classic example of “right place, right time.” If the Hurricanes are going to ever contend again for the Stanley Cup, they will have to take Peters’ advice and “go for the greasy ones,”
It takes a certain amount of toughness to get in the crease and hang out in hope of getting a rebound to try to put in the net. Odds are that you are going to get banged around. Nothing comes easy in the NHL, but a willingness to take the heat in the crease will often result in a chance to put the puck into the net. The Hurricanes must develop this willingness.
With above-average goaltender play and a willingness to get into the crease and take the punishment that comes from being so close to the opposing team’s goal, the Hurricanes can dramatically enhance their chances of making the playoffs. If their play in-goal continues to be average to mediocre, and if they don’t develop a willingness to take the heat of being in the opponent’s crease, then they will not be playing in May for quite a while.