A measuring stick?
Posted March 26, 2009
So here are the Carolina Hurricanes. Winners of nine straight at home and sporting a mark of 18-8-2 since the All-Star break. They are firmly in a position to make the playoffs and I'm about to label Wednesday night's victory over the Ottawa Senators a " measuring stick."
I know you probably saying, how can this be? The Sens have made the most of their lost season by doing what many teams do after their fate has been sealed, win and win a lot. To their credit and thanks to a new coach, they were 9-1-0 in their last 10 and winners of five straight. They had just spoiled the New York Rangers party on Broadway Sunday night. Mathematically they have hope. But these games are the tough ones.
Quite possibly this was one the toughest the Canes would play down the stretch. Ottawa possesses high-end talent, a hot goalie and attitude of, OK, let's finish strong and hit the links. The pressure is basically off. The Canes had to measure up and do so in little intangible areas. Let's see how they did.
First of all, handle what could be one of the best forwards lines in the game today. In order to shut down Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, coach Paul Maurice decided to go strength on strength and match them with Eric Staal's line. It was a great test and certainly it worked in the Canes favor. In the first period the tone was set for the game.
Staal's line didn't score but did what they have been doing of late - that is, to push the pace of the game. They did, and the "pizza" line as the like to call them did not push back. It continued for the balance of the game. This is a great sign of things to come. As much as it is expected for Carolina's top group to deliver scoring they will be asked to be extremely responsible in their own zone. This is a major change from the first half of the year, especially for a guy like Staal. In the front end of the season, he was pressing to score and often times would "cheat" on the offensive side of things and not much would happen. Now with an onus on defensive responsibility on those big shoulders he and his line mates need to start from the defensive side and work from there. Staal, Cole and Ruutu had numerous scoring chances while the Spezza's group's "sniffs" around the goal were few and far between.
Secondly, the Canes' defensive structure in the middle of the ice is a thing of beauty. As we all get ramped up for playoff hockey you'll hear me go to this area of the ice a great deal. This is the defining line in many team's attacks. You look at Detroit, New Jersey, Boston they are all good in neutral. It's the key to your team defense because the other team cannot build speed and outnumber you on the rush and once you make a steal it transitions into scoring chances. The Hurricanes have made a complete turn here since the first half of the season. Last night they excelled in the middle of the ice. Ottawa was not allowed to get going. Not only did the Hurricanes thwart their rush but stole pucks and finish checks. You can ask Mr. Schubert about that.
Lastly, discipline and grit. They continue to play a game with an edge, yet do not take bad penalties. They continue to lead the league in fewest PIMs and that's a great distinction. It's no surprise that the defending champions are right behind them. Detroit annually is always at the top of the list in terms of discipline. The Hurricanes displayed Wednesday night that they can play a "hard" game, and edgy style without spending too much time in the box. They were able to hit at the right times with getting caught out of position. They were able forecheck with the proper support from team mates.
Again all signs that point to a team that can succeed in the second season. They also had a contribution from the fourth line at the right time. After getting scored on, the line of Ryan Bayda, Dwight Helminen and Tim Conboy created havoc in the Ottawa zone, had a scoring chance and initiated some chaos in front of the Ottawa net. This was turning point and another small example of the type of positive team traits that go on big display this time of the year.
So there it was. A game versus the Ottawa Senators on the 25th of March. The Hurricanes fourth game in the last six nights. A game versus the hottest team in the NHL since February 7th. A game to measure where they are at.
Well, they measured up quite nicely, thank you!