In the National Hockey League, no team can win anything in October and November. A team can rack up all the points possible in their allotment of games, and all it will mean is a head start on clinching the No. 1 seed for the playoffs in April, where anything of substance is earned.
But in October and November, a team can sure lose an opportunity at a playoff run later in the season — such was the case for the Carolina Hurricanes last season. After a loss against the Anaheim Ducks on the day before Thanksgiving, they had earned just 15 points through 24 games, much due to a 14-game losing streak they had endured from October into November. After last Thanksgiving, the Hurricanes earned 66 points in their remaining 58 games. But their turnaround didn’t matter. Carolina had dug itself far into too much of a hole to overcome and make the playoffs. The team finished eight points out of a playoff spot.
After a 3-2 regulation loss Wednesday night to the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals, the Hurricanes now sit at 20 points through 21 games this season. While the record is no reason to start printing playoff tickets, it’s also no reason to panic. Last year’s 14 points in 24 games was a reason to panic, and it ultimately cost them a chance at a playoff run.
On Wednesday, Carolina were victims of a visibly energized Alex Ovechkin, who put 10 shots on net and assisted on all three of the Capitals’ goals, and Nicklas Backstrom, who scored two goals. But the game-winning goal didn’t occur until the 12:07 mark of the third period, when the Hurricanes’ 29th-ranked penalty kill (killing off penalties at a 75.3 percent rate) was exposed.
Backstrom shot the puck towards Carolina goaltender Justin Peters to start the game-clinching sequence for the Capitals. Peters tried to clear the puck, but instead, Ovechkin corralled the puck on the left point position. Ovechkin threw the puck on net and Brooks Laich re-directed it home. Both Carolina defensemen on the play – Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo – were nowhere near Laich at the time of the goal, and it seemed like there had to have been some sort of miscommunication between the two defenders about whose responsibility it was to put a body on Laich, or each defender just didn’t see Laich.
(Speaking of Corvo, he had a rough night – he was on the ice for all three Capitals’ goals.)
Either way, the huge defensive breakdown – from the failed clear to the blown coverage in front – that led to the deciding goal and didn’t help the Hurricanes’ 29th-ranked penalty kill, though Carolina did kill of three other penalties on the night. Since Carolina doesn’t possess the kind of premier offensive talent to offset poor penalty killing, these defensive breakdowns will have to cease.
Overall defensively, the Hurricanes are giving up 3.29 goals per game this season, third-worst in the NHL. The Capitals, who threw 38 shots on Peters, had no shortage of chances against Carolina, and the Hurricanes must tighten up defensively. Too many times on Wednesday, Ovechkin, Backstrom and others roamed free for the Capitals. Alas, surrendering three goals to a team that can be as explosive as the Capitals is not the worst thing in the world, either.
Before the game-winning goal, though, Carolina had controlled the pace of play in the third period – scoring two goals to tie the game at two. The Hurricanes had several prime scoring opportunities in the first and second periods, but Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov was up to the task. Carolina peppered Varlamov with 32 shots – including 19 in the second period – but lacked a finishing touch for the better part of the game. Carolina forwards Erik Cole (four shots on net), Eric Staal (one goal and five shots on goal) and Brandon Sutter (four shots on net) had no shortage of opportunities against Varlamov. Sergei Samsonov had the other goal for the Hurricanes.
Carolina, seventh in the NHL in goals per game at 3.05, displayed speed among their forwards and an ability to create scoring chances. They just struggled to finish off the opportunities against Washington, and much credit should be given to Varlamov for that.
The Hurricanes, as stated before, are in a much cleaner position than they were in last year. A 9-10-2 record is no reason for panic in late November. Despite losing Ray Whitney to free agency in the offseason, the offense, led by Staal, has enough talent to win games, as their 3.05-goals-per-game mark attests to.
But Carolina doesn’t want to fall too far out of the playoff picture with an extended stretch of losing hockey that may cost them a spot in the playoffs, much like last year. For Carolina, improving the work in the defensive end is the key to avoiding a negative stretch and staying within reach of a run at the playoffs come February and March.