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Goaltending will once again make or break the Hurricanes season

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So far this offseason is taking shape the same way as the previous four or five for the Carolina Hurricanes

There is the yearly talk that forward Jeff Skinner is on the verge of being traded without — to this point — actually being traded.

We have also now reached the point of the summer where we look at the roster, perhaps after some kind of a trade, free agent signing, or draft pick (in this case the selection of Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick along with the acquisition of Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames), and try to convince ourselves that this is going to be the season where the Hurricanes put it all together and are good again … if only they can just get some decent goaltending. 

As much as it all sounds like a broken record, there is a lot of truth to that statement.

[Related: Beyond Karlsson: Five Players Who Could Be Traded This Summer]

Over the past four years the Hurricanes have allowed fewer shots on goal than every team in the NHL with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings. Despite they rank 20th in terms of goals against, a shocking disparity when you look at the rest of the league. You can talk about shot quality and scoring chances, but teams that are so strong when it comes to shot suppression usually — usually! — fare well when it comes to preventing goals. Teams that are bad at shot suppression are usually bad at giving up goals. It is not exactly rocket science here.

The biggest part of scoring a goal in the NHL is actually getting the puck on net. The more it happens, the more are going to end up in the net. The fewer you get on net, the fewer you in the net.

Just look at the top-10 and bottom-10 teams in terms of giving up shots on goal over the past four seasons and where they also rank in goals against.

The Hurricanes are the only team in the top-seven in terms of shots allowed that ranks lower than ninth in goals against during that stretch. The only other two outliers in the top-10 (Calgary and Dallas) are two other teams that have well documented issues finding consistent goaltending.

The only outliers on the right side are, really, the New York Rangers (Henrik Lundqvist masks a lot of flaws) and Florida Panthers (Roberto Luongo masks some flaws, too). Maybe the Columbus Blue Jackets, too (they have a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in their net).

With the additions of Hamilton and Calvin de Haan in free agency that defense is going to be just as strong, if not better, than it has been the past few years, and that hat will still be true whether or not they trade Justin Faulk.

The issue, again, is going to be whether or not they have anybody in net that can give them even average play in net.

For years it was Cam Ward that had a stranglehold on the position, and for the better part of the past six or seven years was one of the least productive goalie in the league. At different times they have brought in successful backups to perhaps push Ward and maybe even take the job away from him and perhaps solidify the position, including the likes of Anton Khudobin and Eddie Lack. None of them succeeded.

The latest attempt came last offseason when they traded a third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Scott Darling and then immediately signed him to a four-year, $16 million contract extension.

Year one of the Darling era was … well … more of the same in the Carolina net as Darling’s .888 save percentage was 32nd out of 32 goalies to appear in at least 40 games. It was also one of the 10 worst performances over the past 20 years (again among goalies that played in at least 40 games). It had to be a large disappointment for the Hurricanes, not only because the investment they made did not produce immediate results, but also because Darling had been really good in Chicago as Corey Crawford‘s backup. Then as soon as they get him in Carolina everything completely fell apart in his first attempt at being a regular starter (or at least as a semi-regular starter).

Despite that tough debut the Hurricanes seem willing to stick with him and give him another shot, especially after letting Ward go in free agency and only signing Petr Mrazek (who was, to say the least, not good for the Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers this past season) to push him for playing time.

The net, it seems, still belongs to Darling.

His attempt at bouncing back — as well as everything that led to his down year in 2017-18 — was the subject of an in-depth article this week by Luke DeCock at the News & Observer where he details Darling’s work to improve his physical conditioning and attempt to show up at camp in better shape than he did a year ago. Given the season Darling had a year ago, it certainly can not hurt.

If you are a Hurricanes fan there are a couple of things that should give you cause for optimism even after a decade of the same story over and over again.

For one, there is every reason to believe the shot numbers and underlying numbers this team has produced are an accurate reflection of what it is capable of defensively. It is a good defensive team, and it has good players on the blue line, and it added even more of them this summer.

There is also a pretty striking parallel here with another perpetually mediocre team that always seemed to be just a goalie away from competing — the Winnipeg Jets.

For years the Jets stuck with their same core of players, they stuck with the same goalie, they would have consistently good underlying numbers, and they would always lose because their goalies, for lack of a better word, stunk. Then one year they got a chance to draft a superstar goal-scorer with the No. 2 overall pick (Patrik Laine) to bring everything together up front, and then they finally found a competent goalie in Conor Hellebuyck. The result: An organization that had made the playoffs just once in the past 10 years and had never even won a playoff game was in the Western Conference Final, just a handful of wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.

Are the Hurricanes, as presently constructed, really that far away from where the Jets were heading into the 2017-18 season? While the Jets were built around a group of talented forwards, the Hurricanes have built their core around the blue line — and it is excellent. The point, though, is that there is a young, talented core in place here that could be capable of competing this season. How quickly Svechnikov is able to develop will play a big role in the outcome of the season, but the biggest issue will once again be in net.

They do not need him to be a savior. They do not need him to be Henrik Lundqvist or even a top-five goalie But if Darling is able to be the goalie the Hurricanes thought he could be when they traded for — and signed — him a year ago, an average to maybe slightly above average starter, they could be a lot better than anyone expects them to be, and a lot sooner than any expects them to be, too.

Related

Hurricanes Continue To Strengthen Defense With Calvin de Haan Signing
Hurricanes Get Dougie Hamilton From Calgary Flames

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

O’Reilly’s luck turns and so do fortunes of the Blues

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — When the St. Louis Blues traded for Ryan O'Reilly in the offseason, they received an All-Star caliber player still seeking postseason success.

He fit right in with a franchise still seeking its first Stanley Cup after 52 years of existence.

While neither has found what they are looking for yet, they are both one step closer.

The Blues’ win over the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was welcomed by the team’s long-suffering fans, who watched their team climb into the postseason from the bottom of the standings in January.

It was also the first series win in three tries for O’Reilly, a 10-year veteran center now on his third team.

”It’s an incredible relief and excitement,” he said. ”To where we were at the beginning of the year, to crawl our way and how hard guys have worked for each other and to get in, it’s amazing. It just provides that excitement because that’s the most important thing when you’re training in the summer and you look at the beginning of the year you want to get in and compete for a Stanley Cup.”

Success in April has been fleeting for O’Reilly, a 28-year-old Canadian. His teams failed to make the playoffs in four of his six seasons in Colorado and he was a spectator in all three seasons at Buffalo.

Colorado lost in six games to San Jose in 2009-10 as a No. 8 seed during O’Reilly’s rookie season. After a three-year absence, O’Reilly and the Avalanche won the Central Division, only to be upset by Minnesota in seven games.

”Usually at this time, it’s a frustrating time,” O’Reilly said. ”You’re just trying to salvage a decent season personally. Now to have the meaning and this purpose, to prepare for the playoffs, going in there, trying to sort out our seed, playing meaningful hockey and getting ready for what we train for, it’s what you dream of doing, which is competing for the Stanley Cup. It’s what I’ve wanted, and unfortunately it’s taken me a long time to get back in there, but I’m excited. I’m happy with this group, and to be part of it is special.”

It didn’t start that way.

O’Reilly’s departure from Buffalo was rocky. Days after the team finished with the worst record in the NHL, he told reporters he had lost his love of the game.

The losing followed him to St. Louis as the team had a league-low 34 points on Jan. 2. Coach Mike Yeo was fired and was replaced by Craig Berube. It seemed like the O’Reilly curse was just another chapter to add to the heartbreak of Blues fans.

But the curse turned into luck as O’Reilly was the only player on the ice for all 82 regular-season games. He scored 28 goals and finished with 49 assists.

And the team came together after rookie goalie Jordan Binnington was called up. St. Louis won a franchise record 12 straight games and finished the season with 99 points.

O’Reilly continued his strong play into the playoffs, scoring a pivotal goal in the third period in Game 5 at Winnipeg to start a three-goal comeback that turned the series to the Blues’ favor.

Suddenly, Blues fans have started to allow themselves to believe that the team can make their first run to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970.

”Obviously on the ice, his performance every night, since day one he has been a real good player for us,” Berube said. ”He goes against top line on other team. He scores, he plays on the penalty kill, the power play, so his leadership and his play on the ice has been outstanding and I think he’s become a real good leader in the locker room.”

O’Reilly’s versatility sets him apart.

”He can play on the power play, he can play on the half wall, he can play the middle, he can play on the goal line,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said. ”There’s a lot of attributes that make him as good as he is. It’s funny. He’s not just a one dimensional player with a great shot, great speed and good vision. He has all of those things.”

And now O’Reilly has a chance to showcase those skills on hockey’s biggest stage. The Blues open the second round at home against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.

”I don’t think it just happened overnight,” Berube said. ”It took some time. I think they’ve always been a good group outside the rink, but we weren’t and we didn’t have the chemistry on the ice that we have right now. That had to come. And getting that chemistry and playing and working for each other has brought them tighter in the locker room.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Inexperienced Hurricanes look for Game 7 road win

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

If the Carolina Hurricanes are going to eliminate the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), they’re going to have to come up with their first road victory of the series. In Game 6, the ‘Canes found a way to come up with the first lead change of the series, so maybe we can expect the unexpected tonight.

The Caps have 19 players on their roster that have played in a Game 7. The Hurricanes only have seven.

It should be fascinating to see how the defending Stanley Cup Champions respond to the controversial ending in Game 6. With the Caps trailing 3-2 in the third period, Alex Ovechkin seemingly tied the game, 3-3, but the goal was called back because the officials felt like he jarred the puck out from under Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek. Ovechkin visibly upset and he was eventually ejected from the game for sarcastically applauding the officials after they called him for slashing.

Regardless of how angry the Caps captain is in Game 7, the Hurricanes have to find way to overcome their inexperience. Of course, even though the roster remains very young, those players can look to one of the best big-game performers of this generation, Justin Williams, for guidance.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We don’t have a ton of those, but we do have Mr. Game 7,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s nice for young guys to look across the room and see a guy who’s approaching the game the same way. We’ve had tons of emotions in the whole series, and you’ve got to go make plays. His game’s not going to change. That’s comforting for some guys.”

The 37-year-old has just three points in the first six games of the series, but his calming presence in big moments can’t be understated. Williams has faced elimination 23 times in his career, and in those games he’s found a way to score an incredible 15 goals and 27 points. Remarkable.

Now, the rest of his teammates have to follow his lead.

Sebastian Aho, who led the Hurricanes in scoring this season, has picked up four points in six games during this series, but only one of those points has come on the road. The 21-year-old helped create the turnover that led to the game-tying goal in Game 6. He needs to find a way to make a similar impact in Game 7.

Mrazek has made some huge stops to keep his team in games all series. But there’s no denying that his numbers need to improve away from home. In this series, he has a 3-0 record with a .959 save percentage at home. On the road, he’s 0-3 with an .833 save percentage.

But it doesn’t matter what the numbers are in the series because the Hurricanes can put all that behind them if they win Game 7.

Just hurry up, guys. The Islanders are waiting.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Kotkaniemi has surgery; Avs aren’t one-line team

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

• Hilary Knight wants to help iron out the logistics of a women’s hockey league. “I’ve been able to work with some great partners and I’m extremely grateful for that, but I want that opportunity for the next girl or the next young woman that’s graduating college or the next woman that’s going to play at the professional level.” (Forbes)

• ESPN looks back at Dominik Hasek’s 70-save performance in a shutout win over the New Jersey Devils. “You’d probably have to put him on top of the greatest goalies,” Martin Brodeur said. “For the great players, the more you see of them, the more you get them. Like with [Wayne] Gretzky, I got him, but I played more against Mario Lemieux. And I was able to see the effect that he had. Dominik is in the same vein.” (ESPN)

• The Hockey News argues that the NHL shouldn’t change the playoff format. (The Hockey News)

• Jack Todd argues that there’s reason to be optimistic heading into next season if you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. (Montreal Gazette)

• How did the New Jersey Devils defensemen perform based on quality of competition this season? (All About the Jersey)

• Find out how the Tampa Bay Lightning went from winning 62 games in the regular season to none in the playoffs. (SB Nation)

• Hockey fans keep suggesting that the Colorado Avalanche are a one-line team, but they’re deeper than you might realize. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Blues are now the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Travis Yost argues that the Buffalo Sabres should definitely extend Evan Rodrigues. (Buffalo News)

Jaccob Slavin is the most important Carolina Hurricane. (Cardiac Cane)

• Why has home-ice advantage meant so much to Carolina and Washington in their series? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The second-round series between the Stars and Blues will feature two great goalies. (NHL)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights compare Eakin major to infamous call against Saints

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In case you’re wondering: yes, the Vegas Golden Knights are very unhappy about Cody Eakin receiving a game misconduct and five-minute major for cross-checking Joe Pavelski, which opened the door for the San Jose Sharks scoring an staggering four goals on the ensuing power play.

The Sharks would eventually fight back from a 3-0 deficit with that power play, although they needed OT to beat the Golden Knights 5-4, which means the Sharks won the series 4-3.

Here’s the hit, which left Pavelski bleeding, and needing plenty of help to leave the ice surface. (Pavelski didn’t return, and the extent of his injuries remains unknown.)

Whether you believe that was the right call or not, it absolutely swung the game, at least for a time. The Golden Knights were up 3-0, and it seemed like they could weather most things … but a power play that wouldn’t end even if the Sharks scored multiple goals? That wasn’t most things.

Credit the Golden Knights for playing well after the shock of that, even scoring a goal to send Game 7 to overtime, but that doesn’t mean they put that call aside.

The most colorful quotes probably come from Jonathan Marchessault, the player who scored the goal to send the game to overtime, and who had a strong Game 7 overall.

“It’s the same thing as that football game, the Saints, it changes the whole outcome,” Marchessault said, via Sin Bin Vegas’ transcription. “The refs just got involved in the game and now our summer starts. Now five [expletive] months until game one.”

Marchessault is referencing the missed pass interference call from the Saints – Rams NFC title game back in January, which drew an admission of a mistake from the NFL.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski has more from Marchessault, though a warning: Marchessault’s comments apparently rank as NSFW and not very family-friendly.

It seems like Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant kept it together a bit more, or at least used more PG-friendly language.

“Last season we lost in the Stanley Cup Final, and that was hard,” Gallant said, according to Jesse Granger of the Athletic. “But tonight, this is worse.”

No doubt, officials will be scrutinized for that call. The NHL might even feel compelled to tweak the way calls are made because of it. That much, we’ll need to wait and see.

Yet, there are some questions from Vegas’ end. Yes, it’s difficult to kill five minutes of power play, especially against a Sharks team that a) is extremely dangerous, b) was furious after seeing Joe Pavelski hurt, c) had already failed on four power plays, and d) smelled blood with its season on the line. Still, should Gallant had called a timeout to try to ease some of the momentum, and calm things down? Could Marc-Andre Fleury have stopped at least one of those four goals? As the anger subsides, the Golden Knights should grapple with some of those questions, even if they leave a bitter taste.

Much like the Rams advancing to the Super Bowl, the Sharks eliminated the Golden Knights and will face the Avalanche in Round 2, whether that finish seems unfair or not. The Golden Knights will have to face bitter months in trying to avenge this loss.

And, true, they might also lose some money if the league decides to fine them for criticizing the officiating.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.