Surging Hurricanes, Struggling Penguins

As the calendar runs out on 2017, the Carolina Hurricanes season really got going in earnest Friday night as they began a deep dive into competition in the Metropolitan Division. The Pittsburgh Penguins came calling for the season’s first matchup with the Hurricanes. Raleigh’s

Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
Pittsburgh Penguins forward, Phil Kessel, leads his struggling team in points (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

PNC Arena was packed and loud with 17,975 fans, a fair number of which were pulling hard for the Penguins.

In what has been some odd scheduling thus far, the Hurricanes have completed their season series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators. On the other hand, they have yet to play the Philadelphia Flyers, or the New Jersey Devils, two division rivals.

Struggling Penguins?

The defending Stanley Cup Champions are having an uncharacteristic season thus far. In fact, rather than being perched atop or near the top of the Metropolitan Division, going into Friday night’s game the Penguins were tied with the Hurricanes at 41 points. Also, the two were holding down next to last place in the division.

Both teams had won their last game, the Penguins a shootout win over the Blue Jackets, and the Hurricanes a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. The ‘Canes had won three in a row and five out of their last six going into their tilt with the Pens. It can be said that both teams are looking to establish some strong forward momentum going into 2018.

Tristan Jarry Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins backup goalie Tristan Jarry (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Neil Greenburg posted an extremely informative article at the Washington Post which illustrates vividly the struggles that the Penguins are having this season. Greenburg points out,

Pittsburgh’s problems extend from one side of the ice to the other. The Penguins are scoring 2.8 goals per game, fewer than they had in each of the past two seasons, while giving up 3.2 goals per game, the ninth-highest goals against per contest.

It goes without saying that this is not typical of the Penguins, especially the team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals. Greenburg provides more in the way of analytics, showing that even Sidney Crosby has been struggling:

Sidney Crosby is particularly snake bit. With him on the ice, the team should score close to three goals per 60 minutes based on shot quality; instead, the Penguins have produced just 1.3 per 60. No forward has seen a bigger discrepancy between expected and actual goals.

A team like the Penguins are not likely to stay mired in the doldrums of mediocrity. Players like Crosby don’t earn the gloss, “greatest player in the world” by not knowing how to pull out of negative situations. But, the fact remains that as the page turns from one year to the next, this model of the Penguins is not hitting on all cylinders.

Hurricanes Move Forward

The Hurricanes had an excellent opportunity Friday night and they took advantage of what was before them. Starting goalkeeper, Matt Murray was a scratch due to injury, and the inexperienced Tristan Jarry was in-goal. Jarry has not been a complete hack, in 10 starts he has gone 5-3-2. But, he’s not the starter, and the very zealous Hurricanes’ shooting barrage looked to be an advantage for the home team.

While it did not start that way, the Penguins got on the board first with this shot by defender Brian Dumoulin in the first period:

Sebastian Aho played a little loose on Dumoulin, allowing him to get to the crease and slip the puck past Hurricanes keeper, Cam Ward. For a while it looked like the Pens were going to control the game, and leave Raleigh with points and momentum. But, while Jarry played extremely well, he was no match for two of the Hurricanes shot offerings.

First, Derek Ryan, who was celebrating his 31st birthday, tied the game at 1-1 a little over six minutes into the second period. Then Aho, redeeming himself for the earlier defensive lapse on Dumoulin, put the puck in the net for the game winner:

Just a minute or so previous to Aho’s goal, a goal by Teuvo Teräväinen was ruled to have been the result of goaltender interference and reversed to a no-goal. But, the game momentum was with the Hurricanes and Aho sealed the deal with his 11th goal of the season. Ryan noted after the game that not losing the momentum there was important.

Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters said that Aho scoring when he did showed resilience on the part of his squad. Ironically for the Penguins, however, Jason Mackey points out in his piece at that resilience is something that seems to be missing. Mackey wrote, ”

Their resilience has been a point of contention, a part of the “fabric of their identity” they thought they had rectified Wednesday, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. What the Penguins seem to be at this point is drifting, looking for a spark, looking for traction, looking for something, anything that makes them a heck of a lot different than everybody else.

The truth is that the Penguins certainly do not look like the Penguins that NHL fans have gotten used to seeing over the past several years.

Carolina Hurricanes Left Wing Sebastian Aho
Carolina Hurricanes Left Wing Sebastian Aho (20) (Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the halfway mark of the season looms large, the bad news is that neither team is where they want to be, which is safely ensconced at the top of the division not worrying about making the playoffs. The good news is that both teams have a lot of hockey left to play. It will be incredibly interesting to see how Penguins head coach, Mike Sullivan handles adversity and the challenge of climbing up the playoffs ladder. Equally as interesting will be watching Peters navigate success – provided his Hurricanes can continue to play well.

For now, the Hurricanes got the 2-1 win over the Penguins, two precious points and will face the St. Louis Blues Saturday night. The Penguins will visit the Detroit Red Wings Sunday night. For both teams, the uniqueness of hockey as a sport is shining clearly. Even with half a season to go, these games are important.