Takeaways From Hurricanes Returning to Form vs. Canucks

The Saturday matinee matchup with the Vancouver Canucks was a big opportunity for the Carolina Hurricanes to do two things: one, put Thursday night’s debacle with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the rearview mirror, and two, actually get into some level of a rhythm playing after all the off-days and postponements due to COVID-19. The team has played just three games in the last two weeks, which culminated in a rusty team putting forth the sort of effort that leads to results like the aforementioned blowout at the hands of Columbus. It would still be a tough matchup, though, as Vancouver entered the matchup 8-2-1 under new head coach Bruce Boudreau.

However, the Hurricanes came out and took care of business, scoring a beautiful early-first-period power-play goal from Sebastian Aho, then jumping ahead 3-1 in the second period, and adding one more insurance marker in period three to wrap things up with a final score of 4-1. It was a much-needed bounce-back effort and looked like quintessential Carolina hockey. See what happens when they play even moderately consistently?

All jokes aside, head coach Rod Brind’Amour will surely be much more pleased with this effort than in the last two games, as one of the few losing streaks the team has had all season comes to a quick close. This game is definitely one to build off of, as the Hurricanes move to 25-8-2 on the year. Here are the three biggest takeaways from the afternoon win over Vancouver.

The Captain Set the Tone

It’s been a really tough first half of the season for Jordan Staal – especially if looked at in comparison to his incredible 2020-21 performance. Staal’s issues have been so profound that he was even practicing on the fourth line this week; I don’t know that he’s ever played on the fourth line in his career. That didn’t actually come to pass in the game, though, and the Hurricanes are probably glad that’s the case.

Jordan Staal Carolina Hurricanes-Takeaways From Hurricanes Returning to Form vs. Canucks
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The last month or so – and we’ll call the Columbus game an exception – everyone struggled mightily that game – the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has looked a lot more like the player the Hurricanes have heavily relied on for the last 10 years. Per Natural Stat Trick, the trio attempted 18 of the 25 shot attempts that came while on the ice, and their expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) was a monstrous 78.34.

The feather in their collective caps came in the third period when Lorentz’s world-class deflection got past Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko for the game’s final marker. If there was ever a well-deserved goal, that was it. Beyond that, the unit spent seemingly the entire game – while matched up against Brock Boeser and JT Miller, mind you – hemming the Canucks into their own end, punishing them on the forecheck, and creating chances. It was a masterclass in Carolina Hurricanes hockey, and it paved the way for the huge bounce-back win.

I recently put together a post (perhaps boldly) claiming that if three particular things happen, the Hurricanes are going to win the Stanley Cup. One of those things was Staal returning to form – and that doesn’t even mean lighting up the scoresheet, which, once again, he did not do tonight. He had zero points despite great opportunities, including a tremendous point-blank feed from Teuvo Teravainen that he put directly into the logo on Demko’s chest. But they don’t need that guy that scored a ton in 2020-21. If he simply looks like he did Saturday afternoon, setting the tone physically and on the forecheck for the team, hemming an opponent’s top line into their own end, that is what this team will feed off of.

Special Teams Remain Incredibly, Well, Special

Special teams have never been an unimportant part of the game, per se, but in today’s game, it seems like poor special team’s play is particularly damning. Luckily for Carolina, both of their units continue to be nothing short of spectacular, and today, it played a gargantuan role in closing out their 25th win of the season.

We’ll start with the obnoxiously-good penalty kill, ranked #1 in the entire league and succeeding at a 90.5% clip. Vancouver had five power plays, and the team killed all of them off pretty harmlessly. Especially impressive were the first three of the game, which all came in the first period. The Canucks were credited with a single shot in those six minutes, and it was possibly the game-changer considering the score was 1-0 or 1-1 when they came. A power-play goal there, and who knows how the game changes?

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Rather, it was the Hurricanes’ own power play that started the scoring, with Aho taking a quick feed from Teravainen and rifling an absolute laser of a one-timer over Demko’s glove. That unit had a dry spell earlier in the year where they fell into the late-teens in power-play percentage but has once again risen into a top-10 unit, sitting seventh in the league at 24.3%. This also comes without Jaccob Slavin, currently out with COVID, who has been phenomenal quarterbacking the man advantage of late, with five power-play points in December.

Carolina Hurricanes' Teuvo Teravainen Sebastian Aho Jaccob Slavin-Takeaways From Hurricanes Returning to Form vs. Canucks
Carolina Hurricanes’ Teuvo Teravainen celebrates with Sebastian Aho and Jaccob Slavin (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that the Hurricanes have the best overall special teams in the league. If you add up their power play and penalty kill percentages, the sum of 114.8 is the highest mark in the league. And while no, that math is not a perfect science (ha), I’m not sure there is a stat developed that truly paints a better picture of overall special teams’ success. At the end of the day, the Hurricanes’ special teams have won them a lot of games and continue to be a key reason they sit atop the league. Success in this area, along with skilled forwards who can strike at any time and great goaltending from Freddie Andersen, can win you a lot of games – even when you get outplayed.

Svechnikov is All Grown Up

Honestly, at this point, I just chuckle at least four or five times per game when watching the Hurricanes, because I am downright giddy that I get to watch and cover the career of this absolute superstar on the rise. I’ve been singling Andrei Svechnikov out for weeks now because I feel like he’s inching closer and closer to absolutely exploding and becoming one of the very best players on the planet. Today was yet another example that the time might be closer than even I originally thought.

Let’s talk about one play in particular, which came on Martin Necas’ goal that made it 3-1 in the second period. Vincent Trocheck head-manned the puck to Svechnikov just inside the Carolina blue line, causing him to look back to catch the puck. It was a tough suicide pass (still don’t understand why it’s not called a homicide pass, considering it’s almost always the guy passing the puck’s fault), and Vancouver defenseman Brad Hunt had Svechnikov all but lined up to take his head off. Now, Hunt isn’t a big, physical defenseman at just 5-foot-9 and 177 pounds, but many-a player in this situation has been sent to the hospital when catching a player receiving a pass from behind him with his head down… but still, let’s just watch what happened:

I don’t care who it was standing at that blue line waiting to lay Svechnikov out, that’s hilariously impressive. His hockey sense (and, perhaps, good communication on the ice) probably let him recognize he needed to be alert in that situation, but the way he barely broke stride, got the puck to his linemate, and beelined to the net for a middle lane drive that created room so Necas could get his beautiful, top corner, birthday present goal, just shows how strong this kid is at just 21 years old.

Even beyond that play, his primary assist to Trocheck was yet another display of strength, hockey sense, and his vastly improved playmaking ability. After brushing off 6-foot-8 Tyler Myers, Necas hit Svechnikov on the goal line from behind the net (we know how dangerous he is in this area of the ice). The Russian winger quickly laid a beautiful touch pass between two Vancouver defenders, and Trocheck whistled one blocker side of Demko for what ended up being the game-winning goal.

Let’s not forget, his defensive game has rapidly improved over the last few months as well. Most of that comes down to awareness and effort, and while Svechnikov has always been known for his compete level, he clearly had learning to do as far as knowing what to do and where to be in that end. Brind’Amour has – unsurprisingly – seemed to get the most out of his star forward in this area. In recent games, he has made multiple plays on the backcheck or even just in the defensive zone that show how far he’s come as a defensive winger, not unlike Aho, Teravainen, and multiple others, have under the Jack Adams Award-winning head coach.

The kid just keeps getting better in every facet of the game, and if he’s this good now, I can’t wait to see what he looks like at 25. Sorry, NHL defenders.

Back on the Horse

Next on the docket is a Tuesday night tilt with the big, bad Boston Bruins, who are surprisingly just fourth in the Atlantic Division at the moment. That may be a tad misleading, however, as there is a quartet of teams that are clearly separated from the rest of the division, and their record of 22-11-2 suggests they’re not exactly a bad hockey team. They’re also 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, and, after a bit of a cold streak, star forward David Pastrnak is red-hot with seven goals in the last five games. It’ll be a great test for the Hurricanes.

More than anything, though, this team just needs to keep playing. Hopefully, no more cancellations for a while, and, ideally, Slavin returns Tuesday night and the team can keep a fully healthy product on the ice. I’ve written a handful of times about figuring out where this squad is really at, how they match up with other contenders, and figuring out what tweaks, if any, need to be made at or ahead of the trade deadline to best position themselves to win a Stanley Cup. This year it’s particularly difficult to figure out because it seems like no one really has their complete roster at any point in time, but that’s also simply something general managers and coaches have to plan for this year. There’s a pretty high chance that’s not going to be the case for a majority of teams in the postseason, either.

Brendan Smith Carolina Hurricanes-Takeaways From Hurricanes Returning to Form vs. Canucks
Brendan Smith, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With the Columbus game now firmly in the rearview mirror, the Hurricanes can head into their matchup with their former postseason arch-nemesis with their heads held high. The offense is clicking again, and, even without Slavin, the defense was much sharper than the leaky one the Blue Jackets ate alive for breakaway after breakaway – and that’s with the third pairing of Joey Keane, playing his second NHL game (he was excellent, by the way) and Brendan Smith (who may have had his best game as a Hurricane). There’s that depth again. In short, the Hurricanes look like the Hurricanes again; order has been restored.

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