3 Takeaways From Hurricanes’ Exorcising of Scoring Demons vs. Sabres

After the recent run of games the Carolina Hurricanes have played, a game against the lowly Buffalo Sabres was anything but a given. With how poor their puck luck and finishing has suddenly been, the opponent could have been a high school team — getting a scoring outburst still probably would have felt like the weight of the world lifting on their shoulders.

Luckily, it didn’t come to having to face-off against a team outside their weight class to get that monkey off their collective backs. The puck finally started to find some twine, and the team will jet off on yet another Western Conference road trip with some badly needed confidence after demolishing the Buffalo Sabres by a score of 6-2.

The funny thing is, I’m relatively confident head coach Rod Brind’Amour won’t be as happy with the “process” as he was in some of their recent games, in which the Hurricanes did everything but finish. They out-shot their last two opponents, the Dallas Stars and Ottawa Senators, by a count of 89-37, yet were out-scored 7-3 in the two games.

The Sabres actually carried play for long stretches and out-shot the Hurricanes 34-29, but Carolina got back to their formula that led to a franchise-record 9-0-0 start: skilled play and timely saves from the goaltending. Those things can win a lot of games when the team has the talent this ‘Canes roster does.

Sometimes, the bounces just don’t go your way, and sometimes they do; it’s really that simple. But let’s dig a little deeper than that in tonight’s takeaways.

The Return of the Tro (And a Tough Sequence For Him, Too)

This season hasn’t gone according to plan for unrestricted free agent-to-be Vincent Trocheck.

I mentioned it in my last takeaways piece after the Dallas game — he simply hasn’t looked like the same dynamic player that was such a key part of the Hurricanes’ run during the 2020-21 season. However, Trocheck did provide a reminder that he’s still that same player on Saturday, registering three points on a goal and two helpers in the process.

Vincent Trocheck Carolina Hurricanes
Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Confidence is a funny thing, and many times it just seemed like Trocheck was lacking it in recent games. His decision making was uncharacteristically poor, then it seemed like he was hesitating or overthinking plays that are usually second-nature to him.

The speedy, physical center checked those boxes off against Buffalo, though, and got rewarded in the process. With all the absences currently from the lineup (more on that soon), the Hurricanes needed this player to show up, and he did.

Unfortunately, his night was also cut short after a heavy hit on Sabres’ breakout star Tage Thompson late in the second period. Although it was initially ruled a major penalty and game misconduct, I expected the call to be overturned after the referees viewed the replay in concert with the situation room in Toronto. The 6-foot-7 Buffalo center clearly turned at the last second, well after Trocehck was committed to the hit.

If you watch the play at full speed, especially, how can one deduce that there was any malicious intent there, or that the fault was anyone but Thompson’s? There was never an opportunity for Trocheck to read that he was turning, and therefore de-commit from playing through the body.

The numbers were only facing Trocheck when he’s about a foot from making contact, not to mention that Thompson is stopping and therefore basically turning into the Hurricanes’ forward. It was an unfortunate outcome, absolutely, and at the end of the day I’m just glad Thompson was ok. The play was scary. But this seemed more like a case of policing the outcome rather than the act itself.

Despite his ejection, if this is the version of Trocheck that the Hurricanes are going to get again moving forward, and assuming they’re going to get some players back on this road trip, the team ought to be able to get some rhythm going again offensively. When he’s this feisty, aggressive player that backs down from nobody (including players nearly a foot taller than him, obviously), Carolina is an extremely difficult team to handle.

Still Missing Key Players, but Chatfield, Replacements Stepping up Big

The Hurricanes should more or less be used to being down multiple players by now. The team has played the last two games without Tony DeAngelo and Brett Pesce, they missed Nino Niederreiter for five games earlier in the season, and have been down Martin Necas and Ethan Bear at points throughout the season as well.

Now, on top of DeAngelo and Pesce still being in COVID protocol, the Hurricanes’ broadcast noted during the game that another illness was sweeping through the Hurricanes locker room. Frederik Andersen, expected to start the game, was absent from the starter’s crease — or even the bench — for the game. More concerning for an offense that hasn’t been able find it’s footing recently, star winger Andrei Svechnikov was listed as day-to-day seemingly out of nowhere with an upper-body injury.

Andrei Svechnikov Carolina Hurricanes
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

And, to the surprise of very few who saw the Ottawa game, alternate captain and resident team hype man Jordan Martinook was also out with a lower-body injury (seems to be the ankle area based on the way he went down and struggled to put weight on it).

The Hurricanes have been bleeding bodies for a while now, but this just goes to show how important depth of a hockey team is. One of Derek Stepan and Steven Lorentz has been in the press box almost every game (when the team has been healthy), even though neither has ever truly deserved to sit. Both have been excellent in their fourth-line roles, providing energy, forechecking, good defensive play, and even chipping in a bit offensively.

Both of those players checked into the lineup against Buffalo, and, yet, the Hurricanes were forced to roll with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. This left Brendan Smith (who has plenty of experience at forward in the NHL) to serve as basically a “wherever needed” piece, be it on the wing on the fourth line, stepping in to give a defenseman a breather, or on a penalty-killing shift.

Related: Hurricanes Offseason Additions Assisting in Record Start to Season

Bear made his return to the lineup from COVID protocol, but played under 13 minutes as he works to get back into game shape. The virus has been known to sap a player’s energy and stamina, and it seemed as though Brind’Amour tried to keep his minutes to a minimum. Still, as good as the former Edmonton Oiler has been, it was a welcome sight to see him back in the lineup. The Hurricanes will need him on the upcoming road trip.

On the flip side, Jalen Chatfield seems to be pushing for a spot, and not just of the fill-in variety, He has certainly looked like he belongs, as has his co-call-up, Max Lajoie.

Jalen Chatfield Carolina Hurricanes
Jalen Chatfield, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’ll be interesting to see how the Hurricanes handle this situation as their defensemen return to the lineup. Chatfield provides some real thump and energy from the blue line, and he played the second-most minutes of anyone on the team against Buffalo at 19:20, trailing only Jaccob Slavin.

Smith is a fine seventh defenseman, so his spot with the big club is safe. They’ll probably want Chatfield to continue playing if and when the blue line gets back to full health, anyway, so there’s a good chance he heads back to Chicago.

But, in terms of pecking order, there’s a real case to be made that Chatfield has outplayed Smith, and perhaps deserves an extended look moving forward. At this point, next time there’s an injury, it wouldn’t be especially surprising to see the Michigan native get the call and get inserted into the lineup ahead of Smith — especially if one of the right-shot defensemen goes down. Three games is a small sample, but the 25-year-old looks like a legit piece and great under-the-radar find from the Hurricanes’ front office.

Raanta’s Best Game as a Hurricane

As I mentioned in the opening, good goaltending can win you a lot of hockey games. That may seem silly to say about a game with a 6-2 final score, but without Antti Raanta stepping up in some very big moments, this game could have looked much different.

For example, early in the second period with the score 2-1, the Finnish netminder had to make two great stops on a breakaway from Buffalo’s Brett Murray. Just about 90 seconds later, Ian Cole blasted home a slap shot off a faceoff to make the score 3-1. And 24 seconds after that? Trocheck roofed his goal to make it a 4-1 count.

Antti Raanta Carolina Hurricanes
Antti Raanta, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Raanta has had his share of struggles in his time with the Hurricanes, though not all of them really deserve to be placed on his shoulders, such as last game against Ottawa when two of their goals were off of Hurricanes players (much like the first one tonight was, deflecting off the shoulder of his defenseman, Cole). Nothing he truly could have done on those. Still, he has allowed some goals he certainly would like back, and many of them very poorly timed, too. A large number of them seemed to be “new team, little playing time”-type jitters that will dissipate as he gets comfortable in his new system with his new teammates.

With Andersen’s unexpected absence, perhaps these back-to-back starts were just what the doctor ordered. Raanta was phenomenal against Buffalo, making 32 saves on 34 shots. The .941 save percentage (SV%) was his highest of the season (not including the four-save relief appearance against Florida), and the good ‘ol, irrefutable eye test backed up the stat sheet.

Adding to the impressiveness, Hurricanes color analyst Tripp Tracy noted that, in regards to that same “bug” sweeping the locker room, Raanta is not 100% himself right now, either. Maybe he had his own version of Michael Jordan’s legendary “Flu Game”?

Raanta has been a better-than-serviceable backup for a majority of his career. Despite the early struggles, we know there is plenty more in the tank for the veteran goalie. If he starts to look like his old self again, the goalie who posted a SV% of .919 or better in five of six seasons between 2014 and 2020, the Hurricanes will feel really good about a tandem that has mostly been carried by Andersen so far.

Hurricanes Headed Back on the Road

This trio of storylines were far from the only ones worth talking about. Sebastian Aho was his usual, stellar self in dishing out three beautiful assists. Incidentally, two of them were almost identical from-below-the-goal-line centering feeds to his countryman Teuvo Teravainen, who, after some struggles of his own, is suddenly shooting the puck like crazy. As good as his shot is, it is therefore no surprise that “Turbo” is suddenly finding twine regularly. After searching for his 100th goal for what felt like forever, once he got it, numbers 101 and 102 came in the very next game.

Oh, and Necas did this, again, and it is just about becoming his signature move; the explosive, fast-as-lightning shot fake, to wraparound tuck (it’s actually impressive that Malcolm Subban even came close to stopping it):

The Hurricanes desperately needed this confidence boost after dropping five of their last six, and can now head to Winnipeg feeling like themselves again. This swing through Western Canada won’t be easy, as Calgary and Edmonton especially have been very successful this season. The 10-day trip will also take them through Minnesota before they return to PNC Arena for a game on Dec. 16.

The Hurricanes just completed a stellar 4-1-1 road trip about a week ago. If they can build off this game against Buffalo, the COVID situation clears up, and Svechnikov’s injury is as minor as it currently seems, perhaps they are truly ready to burst out of this offensive funk and show that the Buffalo game was not a one-off.

Every team goes through slumps over the course of an NHL season. The breaks simply wouldn’t go the Hurricanes’ way over their last few weeks. With the sticks likely to be gripped a little more loosely after this six-goal barrage, it feels like many more could be on their way now that the puck luck is turning a bit. That ought to make the next few teams on the schedule nervous; the Hurricanes just might be back.

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