As the Carolina Hurricanes continue to build toward consistent chemistry with various line combinations, they are seeing marked improvement among their special teams.
Though the sport of hockey doesn’t directly reward players for it on the scoreboard, quality scoring chances on the power play were bountiful for the Hurricanes on Tuesday. They converted on one of their five man-advantage opportunities, and the sentiment is that those scoring chances will soon morph into goals.
“I thought they moved it around really well last night. Missed some empty nets. It’s the way it’s kind of happened,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “As far as execution, I thought it was pretty good last night. We spent a lot of time in the offensive zone with puck possession, with both units really.
“It’s like my dad always said to me: It’s when you’re not getting chances that you worry about your game,” he said.
Bolstered by a pair of offseason acquisitions, Muller and his coaching staff have been able to assemble a first power play unit that essentially forces defenses to pick their poison. Joni Pitkanen or Justin Faulk, the lone defenseman in the group, quarterbacks Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner along the half-boards and the Staal brothers in front of the net in an umbrella formation.
It’s dangerous, one of the most dangerous five-somes the team has ever iced, by design.
“It’s our five best players out there,” Muller said.
“We were moving the puck a lot better and getting shots,” Faulk said. “I think we’ve got a lot of offense all over.”
“Teams have to respect those kinds of players,” Skinner said. “If we keep it simple, make the easy play and get shots on net, it’s going to be pretty effective.”
That formula is what led to the Hurricanes power-play goal in the second period (video here). After Jordan Staal was booted from the face-off circle, Eric Staal won the draw back to Faulk. Semin sent a shot toward the net. Jordan Staal poked at the lose rebound, and Skinner cleaned it up, flipping the puck over a sprawled Garon.
“Semin has hit crossbars, posts and everything,” Muller said. “That shot really wasn’t a goal-scoring shot, but he got it on net, Skins gets the rebound and scores a goal.”
Especially in this early going when a number of goaltenders are working off nine-months’ rest, simply shooting the puck is the most effective strategy.
“There’s a lot of goals being scored, let’s be honest, that aren’t typically going in. We’re almost looking for the perfect shot,” Muller said. “I’m not making excuses, but with guys trying to play with new guys, they are looking for plays. We just said, ‘Hey, just shoot the puck.’ It doesn’t have to be a perfect shot.”
On the other side of the ice, the Hurricanes’ penalty killing units killed of four straight minor penalties heading into the middle of the third period. It was discernible progress from Saturday night in Florida, when the team surrendered three power play goals on three penalties in the first period alone.
“I thought they did a really good job of keeping the shots to the outside – for the most part – being aggressive and not giving Tampa, especially St. Louis, time,” Muller said. “If you’re going to give these guys time on the power play, similar to our group eventually, they are going to capitalize. I thought we did a better job of being more aggressive killing the penalty and forcing them to make the plays that they don’t want to make.”
But as strong as the penalty killing units were Tuesday night, they can only bend so much. Tampa Bay widened their lead to 4-1 after Jussi Jokinen was whistled for an offensive-zone hooking penalty.
Through two games, the Hurricanes have been penalized 15 times, 10 of which have been minor stick infractions such as hooking, tripping, slashing and cross checking. These sort of penalties typically seem to be magnified at the start of the season, but they can easily be avoided with Muller’s main message to the team: work.
“We just have to raise our competitive level,” he said. “If we increase our intensity as a group, the other stuff will sort itself out.”