The Carolina Hurricanes played three games in the past week against two of the top teams of the Metropolitan Division. They played two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Columbus, and in between, one game at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The ‘Canes lost all three games, and in two of them, got hammered. There are at least three insights to take away from these losses.
Insight 1: Cam Ward Needs Help
I posted an article on Tuesday, Jan. 17 about Cam Ward, saying that he has been the Hurricanes’ workhorse all season. I gave Ward credit for still playing at a high level even after more than a decade of being in goal for the ‘Canes. In a striking bit of irony, that night the Blue Jackets ran him off the ice, scoring four goals by midway through the second period. It proved the point that Ward cannot carry the team all by himself.
Backup goaltender for the ‘Canes, Eddie Lack, is recovering from his second concussion this season. He was on injured reserve from the first concussion, returned to practice and promptly was concussed again. Until Lack is able to fully recover and return to the lineup, head coach Bill Peters is playing Ward a lot. Last Tuesday night, the dam burst and Ward reached his limit. Peters pulled him in favor of Alex Nedeljkovic, who had just been called up from the Charlotte Checkers the day before. He held his own for a guy playing in his first ever NHL game:
Nedeljkovic played well, stopping all 17 shots on goal sent is way, and earned this praise from Peters:
He was good. He came in, shut the door and gave us a chance to come back.
But, he was sent back down to Charlotte the next day, and Michael Leighton was called back up from Charlotte. Leighton would face the Blue Jackets a few nights later, giving Ward a much-needed night off. Insight No. 1 from this week is that the Hurricanes need another legitimate goalie. Ward cannot do it all himself, and the guys in Charlotte can’t either. Sure Leighton is a veteran, but he’s got some mileage as does Ward.
A priority for the ‘Canes before the trade deadline may be finding a goalie, if one is available. General manager Ron Francis may not have bringing in a veteran goaltender on his list of top trade targets, but without help for Ward, the team will very likely not make the playoffs this season.
Insight 2: The Team Is Not Playoff-Ready Yet
Playing the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins is a good barometer for most teams. Friday night, Jan. 20, the barometric pressure was through the roof in Raleigh’s PNC Arena. Over 17,000 fans watched the Pens blow the ‘Canes off of their home ice. The final score was 7-1 in favor of the Penguins.
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) January 21, 2017
Phil Kessel was just one of a slew of Penguins who inflated their personal statistics against the Hurricanes. It was a long night for Ward, whom Peters left in with an eye toward playing Leighton the next day, again in Columbus. Jordan Staal said it best when he said that the team looked like a high-school team on the ice.
Watching the game, it was easy to see the young Hurricanes chasing the puck and skating all around the ice as the Pens controlled the game. At times, some of the younger ‘Canes players appeared to be watching the action. Maybe they were in awe of who they were on the ice with, as names like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are awe-inspiring.
The Hurricanes’ youth showed when Jeff Skinner took a couple of undisciplined penalties and Peters invited him to enjoy the rest of the game on the bench. Skinner is not known for losing his cool, but it happens. Teuvo Teravainen joined Skinner on the pine, having made some costly mistakes that opened the scoring floodgates for the Penguins.
— NHL Starting Lineups (@NHL_Lineups) January 21, 2017
The bottom line is that the Hurricanes are not quite ready for prime time. They are very young and the big stage can be overwhelming. Of course this does mean that they cannot beat the Penguins or the Blue Jackets. They have done so, beating the Jackets as recently as a few weeks ago.
But, in a playoff series, which might well have the Hurricanes facing one of the Metropolitan Division’s elite teams, the ‘Canes would likely not fare well. At least if that series were held today. With a little more seasoning, and a little more experience, this team will be ready, whether they make the playoffs this year or not.
Insight 3: Elite Teams Have Elite Goalies
Sergei Bobrovsky is having a phenomenal year. In the Blue Jackets’ 3-2 win over the Hurricanes Saturday afternoon in Columbus, Bobrovsky was strong. The Blue Jackets’ recap says:
Sergei Bobrovsky needed to be sharp. He was. He was the game’s second star with 35 saves and came up big in the third period while the Blue Jackets struggled to break through a smothering and structured Hurricanes team.
Bobrovsky is having a very good year, and may win the Vezina Trophy. He is currently third on the FOX Sports statistics list of NHL goalies with a .932 save percentage and a 1.97 goals against average. Compare that to Ward, who has a .909 save percentage and a 2.54 goals against average.
— isportsweb (@isportsweb) January 22, 2017
Matt Murray of the Penguins is also an elite goalie, which is quite remarkable considering that he broke into the Pens lineup last season when Marc-Andre Fleury went out with an injury. Murray played lights out and helped his team win the Stanley Cup. His play is still very good, and against the Hurricanes he withstood a barrage of shots in the first period. The Hurricanes looked like they were going to take it to the Penguins in the first 10 minutes or so, but Murray stood strong and kept the goal horn silent:
This is the kind of goalie play that the Hurricanes would love to have and desperately need. If this team is going to advance beyond hoping it can make the playoffs to being a year-in-and-year-out playoffs contender, they are going to have to have a goalie who can put together a season like Bobrovsky is having for the Blue Jackets, and Murray is having with the Penguins. They are going to have to have consistent scoring and also maturity. All of these things are attainable, but they just make take more time.