Around the rink – Saturday, January 15th

1:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh @ Boston

No Sidney Crosby for Pittsburgh this afternoon and that might sting a bit more dealing with a Boston team that’s coming off an inspiring win over Philadelphia and winners of three straight as is. Pittsburgh has been playing a tougher brand of hockey this year and a meeting with the bruising Bruins sets up for a rough game. The Bruins got their three game win streak started on Monday by beating the Pens at CONSOL in comeback fashion. No doubt that the Pens would like a bit of payback for that.

7:00 p.m.

Calgary @ Toronto

We know it’s Hockey Night In Canada, but this one’s set up to be a bit of a letdown. The Flames are playing the second of back-to-back road games and the Leafs are coming home after a five-game road trip and a 5-1 loss to Phoenix. The Leafs will get Jean-Sebastian Giguere back to their lineup but that might be the worst news of all as the recently sent down James Reimer has been the guy responsible for the Leafs recent four-game win streak. What might help out the Leafs is facing a slumping Miikka Kiprusoff for Calgary.

NY Rangers @ Montreal

The Rangers are coming off a big win over Vancouver and would like nothing more than to put one over on the Habs, who they lost to earlier this week. Montreal is coming off a bad loss to Pittsburgh but have been playing solid of late. Taking the Rangers down on home ice would be a good way to get back on the horse. Both teams could use a shot in the arm offensively as they’ve been routinely scoring three or fewer goals.

Buffalo @ NY Islanders

If the Sabres are serious about getting back into the playoff hunt, beating the Islanders has to be seen as a must. Getting Thomas Vanek back out on the ice and boosting the offense will help but getting a big night from Ryan Miller would be better. He’s been playing a little better of late, but to say he might be a bit hungover from how busy he was last year with the regular season, Olympics, and playoffs might be true. For the Islanders they’ll be looking to snap a three-game losing skid. This is the first of three meetings between these two teams over the next eight days.

Tampa Bay @ Carolina

For the Lightning’s sake, we’re hoping they’ve put their stink bomb of a game against New Jersey last night out of their mind. Facing off with a tough Carolina team might not make for the best follow up game for Tampa Bay. Carolina’s won three of their last four but are coming off a tough loss to Buffalo on Thursday. Tampa Bay is hanging on to a perilous lead in the Southeast division and getting a win tonight would put some space between themselves and Washington.

New Jersey @ Florida

The Devils have won two in a row with both wins coming against the Lightning. Weird, we know but they’ll hope their good fortune can continue against the other team in Florida. The Panthers are on a two-game win streak with wins coming against the Caps and Predators but with different goalies earning the wins in each. Will Scott Clemmensen get the nod against his former team, and second straight start, to keep the good mojo going? It might happen. The Devils will have to prove they can score goals against teams other than the Lightning for now.

Columbus @ Detroit

We’re hoping the healthy skaters for Detroit were wrapped in newspaper and Styrofoam on the flight from Columbus back to Detroit overnight lest they get anyone else injured before the back end of their home-and-home series with the Blue Jackets. They’ll be without Jimmy Howard tonight for sure meaning that Joey MacDonald or rookie Thomas McCollum will get the nod in goal. The Jackets, meanwhile, want to keep the good times rolling after snapping their five-game losing skid last night. Perhaps playing each night for charity might not be the worst idea.

8:00 p.m.

Chicago @ Nashville

All of a sudden, this game becomes a pretty intriguing one on tonight’s schedule. With both teams playing great of late, Corey Crawford having two straight shutouts, and the Wings being loaded with injury problems, the Central Division battle got way more interesting. If the Predators can solve Crawford, they’ll be in business. Keeping the Hawks off the board might be the perplexing battle for Nashville as it’s been their role players doing the dirty work of late.

Atlanta @ Dallas

It doesn’t get any easier for the Thrashers. After a tough loss to Philly last night, they head to Dallas to take on the first place Stars where former #1 draft pick goalie Kari Lehtonen awaits to show the Thrashers what they gave up on. The Thrashers are having a rough go of late and dealing with a feisty Stars attack won’t help matters any.

Anaheim @ Phoenix

OK raise your hand if you thought this game would be a battle for second place in the Pacific Division in mid January. That’s right, no hands raised at all. It is a battle for second and both teams are playing some pretty tough hockey. The Ducks have the streaking Bobby Ryan leading the way for them along with the disturbingly steady Corey Perry. Both teams are hoping to keep up with the Stars in the division. Our hope for this one is that Twitter superstar Paul Bissonette gets a chance to drop the gloves once again with mustachioed fan favorite George Parros.

10:00 p.m.

Edmonton @ Los Angeles

The Oilers were able to make fans in San Jose push the panic button on Thursday night beating the Sharks. Beating the Kings tonight might cause the same thing to happen in L.A. with the Kings having lost seven of their last eight games and fans getting impatient with both coach Terry Murray and GM Dean Lombardi seemingly not doing much to help the team improve. You feel like a shakeup is coming in L.A. and a loss to the Oilers might put things into motion.

10:30 p.m.

St. Louis @ San Jose

The Blues are coming off a strong win over the Kings while the Sharks are plummeting in the Pacific losers of six in a row and playing ugly hockey on top of it all. For a team that was at the top of the Western Conference last year, this downturn is stunning. For the Blues, they want to keep the positives going as their win over L.A. was their first in six games. If they can kick a Sharks team while it’s down, they’ll be able to go back home with their heads held high while keeping pace in the Central Division.

Scott Darling will be the key to the Hurricanes’ season

Getty
Leave a comment

This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

A few numbers to keep in mind about the Carolina Hurricanes as they prepare to enter the 2017-18 season:

  • Over the past three seasons only one team in the NHL — the Los Angeles Kings — has allowed fewer shots on goal per game than the 27.3 allowed by the Hurricanes. An impressive number, especially given how young their defense has been during that stretch.
  • Despite those low shot totals the Hurricanes are only 19th in the NHL in goals against. The are the only team in the top-eight in shots against that finished outside of the top-12 in goals against and the only one that has not made the playoffs at least once. Two of those teams have made the Stanley Cup Final at least once. Four have made the the Conference Finals at least once.

So how is a team that is so good at suppressing shots so bad at preventing goals and winning games?

Goaltending.

They are hoping that newly acquired goalie Scott Darling, getting what will be his first chance at a full-time starting job, will be able to help fix that issue.

Over that same three-year stretch mentioned above, Hurricanes goalies — a revolving door made up of Cam Ward, Eddie Lack, and Anton Khudobin — have not managed a save percentage that placed them higher than 26th in the entire league in any one season. That is a pretty significant problem and it has been, perhaps, the single biggest factor in the team’s lack of success on the ice. No one position in hockey can impact the fortunes of a team more than a goalie. Carey Price has taken an average Canadiens team and made them a contender. The opposite has been happening in Carolina.

Let’s just look at this past season as an example, when the duo of Ward and Lack finished with a .904 mark, with Ward (playing in 61 of the games) leading the way at .905.

If the Hurricanes had been able to replace Ward’s performance with a league average number (in the .912 range) in his 61 starts the Hurricanes would have allowed 12-14 fewer goals right off the bat. A league average duo across the board would have cut close to 20 goals off the board over 82 games. That is a potentially significant swing and Darling is the newest goalie that will get a chance to make it happen.

Darling spent the past three seasons serving as Corey Crawford‘s backup in Chicago and playing at a level that made him one of the league’s best No. 2 goalies. Among the 58 goalies that have appeared in at least 60 games over the past three seasons Darling’s .923 save percentage has him sixth in the NHL behind only Carey Price, Matt Murray, Antti Raanta (another backup getting a chance to start this season), Devan Dubnyk and Braden Holtby.

The test for him is whether or not he can maintain that level of play — or anything close to it — when he is counted on to be the No. 1 goalie that gets the top teams every night.

If he can be, the Hurricanes are going to have a great shot to end that eight-year playoff drought given how good their defense already is and how many young, talented forwards they have in their lineup.

If he is not, it will probably be more of the same — a promising young team that just seems to keep falling short in the regular season.

Poll: Will the Hurricanes be a playoff team this season?

Getty
1 Comment

This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

It has been eight years since the Carolina Hurricanes qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Since then they have gone through three coaches, numerous roster constructions and a still ongoing rebuilding effort.

For the past three or four years it seems as if the Hurricanes have entered the new season as a popular sleeper pick to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, and things never quite seem to work out for one reason or another (recently goaltending has been a big reason). Those expectations are back once again this season.

They had a pretty strong finish to the 2016-17 season with an 11-5-5 mark down the stretch and have an impressive young core of players in place, mostly on their defense that is stacked with a ton of already good — and very underrated — players all under the age of 24, with several of them now locked in to long-term contracts. Up front Jeff Skinner is one of the NHL’s best goal scorers, while Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask are looking like two of the best young forwards in the league. They attempted to complement that young core this summer with some pretty significant veteran additions, including Justin Williams, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling.

Their young players are still at an age where they have room to improve, and they made some significant additions around them (and do not forget Jordan Staal, who is still a really good player even if he carries a huge contract). Will those improvements be enough to help the Hurricanes make up eight points in the standings and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season?

Under Pressure: Bill Peters

Getty
Leave a comment

This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Bill Peters is a pretty good hockey coach. In his three years behind the Carolina Hurricanes’ bench his teams have always played hard, they have been competitive, they have seen great growth from their young core of players during their rebuild, and they have consistently been one of the top possession teams in the league. There are a lot of positives and a lot of reasons for optimism for what might be there in the coming seasons.

One thing there has not been: A trip to the postseason. There hasn’t been one in Carolina since the 2008-09 season as three different coaches have been unable to reach the playoffs during that stretch. So it hasn’t necessarily been just a coach thing.

It doesn’t seem that Peters is starting the season on the hot seat, and general manager Ron Francis recently gave his coach a vote of confidence heading into the season saying exactly that.

“I think Bill Peters is one hell of a hockey coach, so I would not put him on the hot seat and in that category. Not at all,” Francis said this week, via the News & Observer. “This is guy who has shown he’s a hell of a coach with a very young team. I don’t think you hold him accountable for missing the playoffs the last couple of years, based on the situation we were in and what we were trying to build.”

All fair points, and he specifically points out the playoff drought and what the team was going through.

But professional sports is still a bottom line business, and eventually results will begin to matter. Especially after the offseason the Hurricanes had that saw them bring in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, Trevor van Riemsdyk and goaltender Scott Darling who can hopefully fix the team’s biggest and most glaring weakness in most recent years (the goaltending position). Combine those additions with a promising young core, led by Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and that defense and expectations are going to start to build.

Peters has also been given a leash that most NHL coaches do not get. Over the past 30 years I found only 12 other examples of coaches that coached a single team to three consecutive non-playoff seasons.

  • Three of those coaches (Terry Crisp, Curt Fraser and Rick Bowness) were coaches of literal expansion teams that were just entering the league.
  • Seven of them were fired just after the third non-playoff season.
  • One of them (Ron Wilson) was fired late in what would have been the fourth consecutive non-playoff season.
  • Wayne Gretzky was given four consecutive non-playoff seasons in Arizona before he was no longer behind the bench. His replacement, Dave Tippett, was given five consecutive non-playoff seasons after some early initial success with the team. That run ended this offseason when he mutually agreed to step away from the team.
  • Lindy Ruff made it through three non-playoff seasons in Buffalo in the early 2000s and managed to stick with the team for another eight years. But his playoff drought followed four consecutive playoff seasons, including three years where the team advanced to at least the second round and one year where they won the Eastern Conference.

The bottom line with Peters is this: A good coach that probably isn’t to blame for the team’s recent lack of success, but given the shelf life of coaches in the NHL and how few of them get to stick around for this many seasons without the playoffs, and the offseason additions made by the front office, the team is going to have to start winning. Soon.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

Getty
Leave a comment

The Carolina Hurricanes have been building up some buzz ever since Bill Peters helped transform a young core into an impressive possession machine.

Even so, whether you blame it on goaltending or some other factor, the Hurricanes haven’t made it to the playoffs since the 2009-10 season.

Management took measures to make some key upgrades in the off-season in order to break that slump.

Logically enough, Carolina searched for an answer in net, trading away Eddie Lack and boldly handing a four-year, $16.6 million contract to Scott Darling. With that, they’ll mix the future (Darling) with the past (Cam Ward) as their goalie duo.

Speaking of the past, the Hurricanes also brought back a vestige of their Stanley Cup victory, acquiring Justin Williams as a UFA. They added some additional championship experience by bringing Marcus Kruger into the mix, too.

Some of the biggest transactions come down to keeping players in the fold. The Hurricanes made it clear that, along with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin figure into their long-term plans with substantial contract extensions.

Of course, the biggest decision may come off the ice, as the Hurricanes’ ownership situation remains fuzzy at the moment.

Switching gears, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about the Hurricanes. Aside from a Williams here and Lee Stempniak there, this roster is brimming with young talent, including players whose peak years are likely ahead of them.

Still, at some point, potential needs to make way for production. PHT will examine where the Hurricanes might be headed in 2017-18 on this fine day.