It has been said ad nauseum, but it’s ultimately an accurate measuring stick of a team’s success: A team’s best players have to be its best players.
Statistically speaking, this has been the case for the Hurricanes five games into this compressed season.
Eric Staal leads the team with six points (4g, 2a) and is a plus-6. Jeff Skinner leads the team with five goals, and he extended his goal streak to four games on Monday night, the longest such streak of his career. Jordan Staal leads the team with five assists, and he is riding a four-game assist streak. Alexander Semin has four points (1g, 3a) and is a plus-5.
But, production on the scoresheet doesn’t always translate into success in the standings. Despite the offense turning a corner, the Hurricanes are 2-3 on the season, and, as head coach Kirk Muller said, got a lesson last night on what it takes to play a complete game.
“We’ve managed to score some goals and create some offense, but there are other parts of the game where collectively I think we can get a little bit stronger,” Eric Staal said. “Just the smaller details of the game [like] face-offs for me last night. Special teams could be a little bit sharper, and we’re a big part of that.”
A common denominator around the league thus far is a productive top forward line. Look no further than Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski in San Jose, who have combined for 36 points in just five games. While even the points total of the entire Hurricanes team can’t match those numbers, the top two lines are still developing a chemistry that is leading to timely goals.
“You look at other teams around the league, and you want to be able to match up against them,” Eric Staal said. “We feel like we can do that.”
“We’ve got two lines really going right now,” Muller said. “On the plus side, that’s what we were hoping for.”
On a personal level for Eric Staal, getting off to a hot start statistically does wonders for his confidence. Through five games last season, Staal had two goals and one assist and was a minus-8.
“For me, it’s always less thinking and more playing,” he said. “When you’re in those scoring areas, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to do with it, you’re just executing.”
Helping along his productivity has been the addition of Semin on his right wing, giving him a partner that can match and challenge his elite skill-set. In what has been a crescendo of chemistry, Semin threaded the needle to find Staal skating untouched into the slot last night for the game-tying goal.
“Now we are starting to know some of the areas and some of the tendencies that each other has,” he said. “On my goal yesterday, he makes the read that I’m coming in late, and he makes a great pass. Those are things you develop as you play together.”
But, communally, there needs to be more. Hockey is, in the end, a team game.
“It does feel good to be contributing offensively, but for our team and for any team to win, it takes everybody, a collective effort of 20-plus guys,” Eric Staal said. “We’ve been doing that for stretches but not consistently for 60 minutes, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.”
Muller specifically mentioned needing more production from the team’s third line. The current grouping of Drayson Bowman, Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose hasn’t recorded a point and is a combined minus-8.
Following an 0-for-6 performance on the power play last night, Muller said the coaching staff would likely shake up the combinations to make the two units more balanced. As seen last night, effective special teams can be the difference between winning and losing a close, third-period game.
Not impeding the offense, Muller also wants to see the team be stronger defensively. That’s part of the message in practice this week. The offensive production from the team’s best players is beneficial and necessary, but a playing a complete game is crucial to regular success.
“I don’t think we’ll have a problem scoring goals, but we have to continue to be better defensively,” he said. “We had areas last night where we weren’t good enough.
“We asked for three things: That the guys work, focus and do the system,” he continued. “We’re not consistent doing that right now. When we were, we played well.”