At least so far, one of the Hurricanes’ biggest strengths from last season has turned into a weakness.
After leading the league in discipline with a measly 9.8 penalty minutes per game a year ago, the Canes have struggled in that area at this stage of the young season. After five games, they ranked 29th in the league as of Monday morning with an average of 24.6 minutes per contest.
Not all of that is completely fair, as the team has racked up an uncharacteristic amount of majors and misconducts, mostly in the 7-2 loss in Boston, which didn’t necessarily put them at a disadvantage. More troublesome is that the Canes lead the league in minor penalties with 39, six more than the second-placed Pittsburgh Penguins, who come to town on Wednesday.
“The occasional roughing penalty and that stuff, we live with and we’re going to kill those,” said Coach Paul Maurice. “It’s the hooks, the chops and the trips that are just carelessness with the stick.”
Penalty trouble played a big part in Saturday night’s 5-2 loss at Tampa Bay, when the Canes were whistled for seven minor infractions. Although they only gave up one power play goal thanks to a penalty kill Maurice said has “markedly, drastically improved,” the head coach believes the time spent shorthanded had a negative effect on the team’s overall game.
“We burned big minutes with our high-end guys against that power play,” he said. “We had to work way too hard to kill those minutes off and our goaltender had to make too many good saves. Then, you’re five-on-five play just doesn’t have it in the tank to get it going.”
“I think I had [Tampa] for about three even-strength chances through 27 minutes, but they had at least 10-to-15 on their power play,” he continued. “To say the game was close … our goaltender kept that one close.”
Some of the problem could be attributed to bad luck, as the Canes have had a number of questionable calls go against them. Somehow, Sergei Samsonov has 10 penalty minutes in five games, which is the most of any Carolina player who has not recorded a five-minute major or misconduct.
“He’s completely lost any chance at the Lady Byng,” joked Maurice. “He’s had some unusual ones.”
There’s also the belief that games are traditionally called more closely at the beginning of the year than they are later in the season. Last year’s most-penalized team, the Philadelphia Flyers, finished with an average of 17.5 minutes per game, which is significantly lower than the Canes’ current clip.
“We’ve taken way too many penalties,” acknowledged defenseman Niclas Wallin. “But it’s the same thing every year. Even if you attempt to do it now they’re going to call it.”
Even with those possible explanations, Maurice still wants to see the Canes put more offensive pressure on the other team, which he thinks will help solve the problem.
“You shouldn’t be taking any penalties in the offensive zone, and you’re there because at some point you’ve had control of the puck, and that’s primary if you want to draw penalties,” he said. “We’re spending too much time on our heels in the neutral zone and the defensive zone.”
Injury update: Joni Pitkanen did not return to practice on Monday, but skated on his own earlier in the morning. Fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen also did not participate as the team continues to be extremely cautious with possible illnesses.
Sickness aside, Maurice said that Pitkanen was the only “question mark” for Wednesday’s game, and that he expected everyone else to play.
Albany update: After struggling in a season-opening 6-3 loss last week, the River Rats won by scores of 5-2 and 6-1 over the weekend. Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk each have five points through three games, while goaltender Mike Murphy made 28 saves in his first professional start.