The Carolina Hurricanes have had a mixed bag when it comes to this season. There have been highs, a 5-0-0 start and a 4-0-1 West Coast road trip, but there have also been plenty of lows, injury problems and struggles against their own division.
With 18 games remaining in the season and 10 of those being on the road, the Canes will need to buckle down and play a full 60 minutes every game if they hope to edge out the other teams vying for the final playoff spots.
Looking to the end, here are 10 thoughts on the Hurricanes in March.
1. The defense has to be better - While some of the bluelines’ individual performances have improved, such as Haydn Fleury, the defense as a whole needs to be more consistent in the absence of two top-four blueliners, Brett Pesce and Dougie Hamilton. Carolina is near the bottom third of the league in high-danger chances allowed and with two AHL goaltenders in net, it isn’t a sustainable practice. It isn’t that the defense is poor, it just seems that every few plays, there’s just a small mistake or lapse of judgment that goes horribly wrong. It is a critical error that leads a lot of the time to a goal against.
2. No help coming - Head coach Rod Brind’Amour had said that James Reimer and Brett Pesce’s injuries would be longer term, but there had been hope for a quicker return for Petr Mrazek according to general manager Don Waddell during his trade deadline press conference. But after practice on Monday, Brind’Amour confirmed that Mrazek would not be returning anytime soon. Sportsnet reporter and NHL Network insider Elliotte Friedman tweeted out Tuesday that Waddell had told him that the timetable for Mrazek was 7-10 days. That would rule him out for at least the next four to six games, which is a crucial make it or break it stretch for the team.
3. Either win the road trip or pack it in - The Canes will be playing its first five games in March on the road and four of those will be against Metro opponents, three of which they are actively chasing. Carolina has an abysmal 33.3% win percentage against Metropolitan division teams and if they want a shot at making the playoffs, they need to stop giving points to those they’re competing against for a playoff spot. With three four-point swings in a row, the Canes need to bring their all, especially with the injuries they have. To even have a shot, Carolina will more than likely need to win four out of the five games, or at the very least three wins and an overtime point.
4. March of the Penguins - The Hurricanes will be playing the Pittsburgh Penguins four times in March, the entire season series. This series will also be a make it or break it series for the Canes as eight points are on the table for the taking. Currently in third place in the Metro with 80 points (five ahead of Carolina), Pittsburgh is however, on a six game losing slide. Canes need to capitalize on this moment and not be a reason for another rival's turnaround.
5. New additions working out - Vincent Trocheck and Brady Skjei have both shown moments of brilliance after three games and have carried the weight with plenty of ice time and penalty kill time each. However, both are still looking for bigger contributions on the scoresheet with Skjei having a single secondary assist. Defensively, Trocheck has been an absolute force in the faceoff circle, being nearly 59% at the dot since joining the team. He has also been really heads up with offensive transitions and helps drive a second line with strong possession numbers. Skjei has shown a brilliance for carrying the puck through transition and jumping into the rush, nearly scoring his first goal as a Hurricane multiple times. It may be a worthwhile risk to give Skjei time on the top power-play unit over Jaccob Slavin simply due to his ability to walk the line and natural offensive upside.
6. Vatanen nearing return - Sami Vatanen, acquired by Carolina for Janne Kuokkanen, Fredrik Claesson and a 2020 fourth-round pick, has been dealing with a lower-body injury he sustained with New Jersey after blocking a shot on Feb. 1 in a game against the Dallas Stars. Brind’Amour said that Vatanen had started skating before practice on Monday and his return timetable remains for early March. Vatanen is a right-handed defenseman and could help bring some stabilization back to a devastated blueline.
7. Top-line’s defensive liabilities - The top line of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen has been a force since they were put back together Feb. 6 against the Arizona Coyotes. Since then, the line has been dominant and ranks in the top-five in scoring among the NHL’s top lines.
However, the line is not perfect. In the past four games, the trio has allowed 10 high danger chances against and has a combined Corsi for percentage of 58.14%. While that is a more positive metric meaning they are taking more shots than allowed in total for the past four games, it isn’t as dominant as the line has been. In fact the line has also had a negative relative Corsi for percentage in three of the past four games meaning that they were allowing more shots against when on the ice than when on the bench. This isn’t to say bench or break up the line, but it is to say that they have not been as reliable defensively against some of the rest of the NHL’s best and it’s an area that still needs improvement.
8. Other lines able to drive play - The biggest boon the Hurricanes have seen is the ability to add a number-two center to help drive play. Outside of the game against Montreal which saw a myriad of line combinations, nearly all of which came up flat against the opposition, Trocheck has done well alongside Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas. The line has shown a lot of skill and quite a few goals have been right on the doorstep, but the building chemistry is visible. Further the line with Jordan Staal, Warren Foegele and Justin Williams, while not scoring or showing much skill on the puck, is still a heavy line that gives opponents a hard time. It is currently the Hurricanes’ best defensive line and they have done a relatively good job in keeping opponents hemmed in or chewing clock.
9. Trouble starting on time - The biggest bane on the other hand, has been the Canes’ inability to start off the gun. In the month of February, the Hurricanes scored the first goal in just 3 out of 13 games going 2-0-1 in those games, but 6-5-2 overall in February.
Carolina is 24-3-2 when scoring first but a measly 11-21-3 when the opponents score the first goal. Further, when they are leading after one period they are 18-0-1 as opposed to 7-17-1 when trailing early. If the Hurricanes could just start on time and play with the same amount of desperation as when they get behind in the third period, their efforts wouldn’t keep being for nothing.
10. Guaranteed points - Good teams don’t lose to bad teams out of the running. Carolina will play New Jersey and Buffalo twice, as well as getting a crack at the historically bad Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings and those are points that are a must have at this time in the season. New Jersey has been on a bit of an upswing as of late, just having had a six game point streak backstopped by Mackenzie Blackwood who is posting a 0.916 save percentage on the season and has posted two shutouts in February alone, but still the Hurricanes are a better team. Every point not earned in these games is a tremendous blow.