So many nights, Jordan Staal was left nearly speechless, alone in the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room trying to explain away a baffling loss. And there he was again Tuesday night, after yet another helter-skelter win, asking the questions himself.
“When’s the last time you’ve seen that?” Staal asked, rhetorically. Pedantically, the answer is Sunday afternoon, when the Hurricanes scored eight goals in four separate comebacks against the New York Rangers. Philosophically, the answer is never, at least in his seven-season tenure.
Dig a little deeper, and the history starts to echo a little bit, but as for living in the present, this is a Hurricanes team unlike any other in recent memory. Rod Brind’Amour has, quite deliberately, replaced the tight, organized – and, yes, passive – game of the Bill Peters era with a free-for-all style that doesn’t mind giving up a scoring chance for two as long as a few more chances are created going the other way.
Tuesday’s 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks was all of that, with a few of the Canucks’ goals scored out of unforgivable errors that had nothing to do with the Hurricanes’ aggression with the puck, but the math tends to work in your favor when you’re scoring four or five times a game.
“It is definitely more fun, a style that every player likes to play,” Staal said. “Everyone wants to step on the ice and feel like they can be the guy to help the team win. That’s a good feeling. I feel like everyone’s got that feeling throughout the lineup which has been great and everyone’s contributing. Obviously, there’s always breakdowns and ways to tighten up defensively, but I feel like even in our previous style there were always times of defensive lapses.”
Through four games, the Hurricanes are 3-0-1 and have scored 17 goals despite a power play that has been anemic at best. It’s less about changing the structure and more about tweaking the mindset, tipping the little decisions that make up the soft middle of any game toward offense and aggression instead of defense and caution, giving the proverbial green light to just about anything.
“There’s going to be chances for the other team, but as long as we play our way, we get enough scoring chances to score goals and win games,” said Sebastian Aho, with a point in every game so far.
On a team full of kids, from Warren Foegoal – er, Foegele – to Aho to Andrei Svechnikov, all of whom are thriving in the early going, why not let them run wild, with old warhorses Staal and Justin Williams setting the tone and playing with energy that belies their age?
“It’s exciting,” Foegele said. “I don’t know if the coaching staff likes it that much, but we’re playing hard and we’re playing fast and it’s a lot of fun.”
On the contrary, the coaching staff likes it very much. This is all very much by design, for several reasons. It’s fun, for the players and the potential ticket-buying public. And, even if no one wants to talk about it, it’s a pretty good way to minimize the impact of the Hurricanes’ biggest unknown.
If you’re concerned about your goaltending, as the Hurricanes should be, why try to play for a 2-1 game that leaves no margin for error? When you score six or eight, the impact of a bad goal, any bad goal, is inherently minimized.
That wasn’t as much an issue Tuesday as it was Sunday, but the same is true of defensive breakdowns, which should be less of a concern even if there were plenty of those Tuesday.
“It’s a fine line, right?” Brind’Amour said. “We don’t want to give up chances but you’re also creating offense because you’re giving up chances, if that makes any sense. We’ve just got to shore up the things that are costing us that we’re not getting any offense out of anyway. Like giving up stretch passes. Or special teams.”
Those last eight words covered it all Tuesday: A stretch pass that got past Dougie Hamilton led to Vancouver’s first goal and the other two both came on the power play.
The Hurricanes have taken care of business so far, taking seven points from four games against one contender and three teams not likely to make the playoffs, the latter so crucial for a team without a history of banking points early in the season (or anytime). Winning the winnable ones, not letting a point leak through here and slip by there, is the first step toward making the playoffs. It’s progress, for certain.
Now, the real test, three games on the road against elite teams. For now, to the extent they can in six days, they have a sense of who they are and what they want to be. By this time next week, after going to Minnesota and Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes will have a better sense of just how good they are.