Despite being shutout 3-0 last night in Montreal, the Carolina Hurricanes are amidst their best stretch of the season — 10-4 since the final day of 2013. They’re, for the moment, clinging to the final Wild Card spot, and have averaged nearly 4 goals per game over their last seven. But something is still missing.
Over the same stretch, the Canes have gone just 2 for 24 on the powerplay and have seen their success rate drop to 14 percent, good for 27th in the league. They’re winning more often than not in the new year, but with little help from the powerplay. And its absence has been felt.
In Buffalo, trailing 3-2 early in the third, the Canes were afforded a 4:00 opportunity to tie it up thanks to a Zemgus Girgensons high stick on Riley Nash. On the attempt, however, they recorded just four shots on goal, all in the first 90 seconds, and spent most of the last 2:30 chasing the puck down the ice. Though they would go on to record two even-strength goals in the period in the victory, other results weren’t so fortunate.
Against Tampa Bay, a comeback was thwarted after a 1 for 5 effort on the man advantage. Even the Hurricanes’ third shutout in their last four losses could have been avoided. They beat Carey Price twice, but each glanced off the post and harmlessly away.
Jim Rutherford has been well aware of the issues on special teams. In John-Michael Liles, he acquired his long sought after puck-moving defenseman, and thought the problem was resolved. While the powerplay looks better, the results don’t; they’ve gone just 5 for 38 (13.1 percent, worse than their season average) since he started suiting up for the Hurricanes, and those opponents include some of the worst penalty-kills in the NHL.
So what is the issue with the powerplay?
“It’s one thing to get a lot of shots, but we weren’t getting quality chances with bodies in front,” said Manny Malhotra. “Those second and third opportunities that we always talk about. It’s one thing to a get shot total up there, but it’s a different story to actually get in front of him and give him a hard time.”
Liles has provided better movement of the puck, but if no one is screening the goaltender, then saves can still be relatively routine. Tuomo Ruutu plays less than 2:00 per game on the powerplay, but is one of the few willing to pay the price in front. It’s no coincidence that they cash in at a goal-and-a-half higher rate per 60 minutes while he is on the ice — best differential of any forward not named Eric Staal. And that includes Alex Semin.
While most of Rutherford’s criticisms of Semin have been unfounded, the high-scoring winger has been more hesitant to shoot on the powerplay than he has at even-strength. He’s averaging fewer shots on goal per 60 minutes than Justin Faulk, and has a high percentage of his chances blocked.
The Hurricanes have just one player who ranks in the top 50 in shots on goal: Jeff Skinner at number 40. Given that Carolina has had the 15th most powerplay time, it’s concerning that so few of their stars are able to get shots through. Eric Staal has just 18 shots, fewer than Ruutu despite getting almost double the time and playing a different role. Over the years he’s typically been among the league leaders in powerplay shots.
The production from the blue-line has been largely absent as well with just 5 goals on the season. Andrej Sekera is capable of looking like a Harlem Globetrotter on ice, but his shot isn’t much of a threat. In fact, the Hurricanes have just 3 powerplay goals that have come on slapshots from the back end. There is no reliable bomb from the point, and it leads to an easier time of clearing the front of the net, which is a rare occurrence in itself.
So while the movement has become more common, quality chances are still scarce, and goals have been scored mostly off of Skinner’s blazing shots. A varied approach — more shooters, more screening of the goaltender, more slapshots from the point — will yield more results.