RALEIGH — It seems early in the NHL season to call the next three games pivotal, but Thursday’s game in Colorado, Saturday’s in Arizona and the Panthers’ visit to PNC Arena on Tuesday has that feel for the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I just know it’s hard to win,” coach Bill Peters following the team’s Halloween matinee practice. “In order to win there’s a certain way you to play. And when you play that way you’re going to give yourself a chance.
“We have a template when we play the way we’re designed to play, we’re very efficient and successful. When we deviate from that, then we’re very random.”
Part of the reason Carolina sits at 4-4-2 at the 10-game point of the 2017-18 season — and its eight-year playoff drought — is the team’s seasons-long difficulty scoring. The Hurricanes rank 23rd in the NHL at 2.7 goals per game, and Carolina and the eight teams behind them in that statistic are all on the wrong side of the early-season playoff cutline.
But the Peters — by his words and actions — seem to think the problem is not scoring but rather the number of goals they’ve allowed.
“I think when the game was coming down to the final eight, nine, 10 minutes, three’s enough to win,” Peters said after Carolina couldn’t hold on to a 3-2 lead Sunday against Anaheim, leading to a 4-3 shootout loss. “So we had enough to win tonight. … You don’t need to make it four.”
Throughout his three-plus season tenure in Raleigh, Peters has often mentioned that the NHL is a “race to three” league — put three pucks in the other team’s net, you win.
The trouble with that mentality is it leads to a lot one-goal games. And the Hurricanes, under Peters, have not fared well in one-goal games.
The last three seasons Carolina has ranked 26th (.419 in 2016-17), 21st (.444 in 2015-16) and 29th (.325 in 2014-15) in winning percentage in one-goal games, never cracking the .500 mark. This year it’s been even worse through 10 games — the Hurricanes have a .286 winning percentage (2-3-2) in games decided by a goal.
The Hurricanes have played four 2-1 games — they’re 1-2-1 — and scored fewer than three goals in half of their 10 games. So while the team hasn’t seen results in games in which the winner didn’t reach three goals, none of their games have truly fit Peters’ “race to three” observation — the only game where the winning team won without the opposition reaching three goals was Tampa Bay’s 5-1 at Carolina Oct. 24, and that was a 2-1 game until the Lightning scored two empty-net goals and then added their fifth late when the result was already decided.
So is the NHL a league where, as Peters contends, three goals gets the job done most nights?
With some help from Hockey-Reference.com, here are some stats regarding scoring this season.
Heading into Thursday night’s games, teams are averaging 3.06 goals a game (so 6.12 scored in each game). That’s up from 2.77 last season (the league average has been in the 2.7s every year from 2010-11 until 2016-17). Shots are also up, from 30.1 last year to 32 through 185 games this season.
Both numbers are likely thanks to an early-season increase in penalties — teams have got 3.73 power play opportunities per game so far this season thanks to the increased emphasis on calling slashing infractions, a jump of 0.74 over last year’s 2.99 per game and the most since 4.16 power play opportunities were awarded in 2008-09.
Carolina isn’t benefiting from that increase nearly as much as other teams with 35 power plays through 10 games. Their opponents, however, have been given even less an opportunity, getting just 20 power plays in the first 10 games thanks to the Hurricanes’ discipline. That includes none in each of the last two, just one each in the two before that, and a total of five in the last six games.
The Hurricanes have six power play goals this year (tied with five other teams for the fifth fewest in the league) and allowed just four on the penalty kill — tied for second fewest.
And those numbers aren’t indicative of an atrocious power play or lockdown penalty kill. The Hurricanes have had middle-of-the-road production with the man advantage at 17.1 percent (ranked 16th), while the penalty kill sits at 20th in the league at 80 percent.
Both numbers have been better on the road (power play 21.1 percent; penalty kill 84.6 percent) than home (PP 12.5, PK 71.4), which gives the hometown fans the feel of struggling special teams that have really been no worse than average.
We can deduce Carolina’s propensity to play low-scoring games is due, in part, to a lack of special teams scoring. However, how do the Hurricanes fare in high-scoring games?
For our purposes, let’s say the definition of a “high-scoring game” is one in which each team manages at least three goals.
This season, the Hurricanes are 3-1-1 in five high-scoring games, which make up half of their first 10 games (5-4 shootout win over Minnesota; 5-3 win at Edmonton; 4-3 loss at Dallas; 6-3 win at Toronto; 4-3 shootout loss to Anaheim).
That’s a small sample size, so here’s Carolina’s performance in the games defined as high-scoring.
The Hurricanes have played 59 games (including the five this year) where each team scored at least three goals under Peters, and they are 26-16-17. That’s 69 points in 59 games — 1.17 points per game, a nearly 96-point pace.
Take away Peters’ first year in Raleigh — when they were 5-8-4 in 17 high-scoring games — and the numbers look even better: 21-8-13; a 107-point pace at 1.31 per game.
Year: Record in high-scoring games (points, ppg., points pace)
2017-18: 5 of 10 — 3-1-1 (7 pts., 1.4 ppg., 114.8 pts.)
2016-17: 21 of 82 — 9-3-9 (27 pts., 1.29 ppg., 105.8 pts.)
2015-16: 16 of 82 — 9-4-3 (21 pts., 1.31 ppg., 107.6 pts.)
2014-15: 17 of 82 — 5-8-4 (14 pts., 0.82 ppg., 67.5 pts.)
It’s unlikely Carolina will continue to have half of their games be high scoring. In both 2014-15 and 2016-17, four of the team’s first 10 games were high scoring, and in 2015-16 just two of 10. For the full season, numbers trend closer toward 20 percent:
2017-18: 5 of 10 (50 percent)
2016-18: 21 of 82 (25.6 percent)
2015-16: 16 of 82 (19.5 percent)
2014-15: 17 of 82 (20.7 percent)
Playing high-scoring games can go either way on a team. Last season, Pittsburgh, Toronto, the Rangers, Minnesota, Nashville and Edmonton all ranked in the league’s top-10 in total goals per game (combined goals for and against) and made the playoffs, and all but Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed, Toronto, did so easily.
It didn’t go as well for Winnipeg, Dallas, the Islanders and Tampa Bay. All four missed the playoffs as the other teams in the top 10 of total goals per game. Those four also made goalie adjustments this season, playing a different opening night starter than last year.
The Hurricanes also addressed their goaltending with the addition of Scott Darling, but throughout Peters’ tenure the team has consistently played low-scoring games, ranking tied for 15th last year in total goals per game (5.5) in a slow climb from the bottom of the league (5.05, 28th in 2014-15; 5.17, 25th in 2015-16) despite being ranked 18th in goals allowed in each of Peters’ first three seasons.
Overall, Carolina hasn’t scored enough and allowed too much under Peters. As the talent on the roster has increased — both offensively and defensively — one would think that gap would close, and it has. The Hurricanes’ goal differential has gone from minus-0.44 in Peters’ first year to minus-0.41 and then minus-0.21 last year. After this season’s first month, it’s minus-0.20.
While Peters is all for scoring more, he doesn’t want to do it at the expense of defense and structure.
“You need to, yeah, you do. You need to get it properly, though,” Peters said when asked about pushing for more goals beyond three. “You don’t have to be impatient to get it, you have to check for your chances. You are going to get your chances when you’re up one coming down the stretch, you just gotta pick your spots properly.
“I would love to get to four, five and six and keep your foot on the gas, but giving up three and four a night isn’t a recipe for success.”
His actions on and off the bench solidify his stance.
Jeff Skinner — he of more than a quarter of Carolina’s 27 goals this year — did not see the ice after Anaheim scored the game-tying goal against his line with 4:48 remaining in Sunday’s eventual shootout loss to the Ducks. That includes overtime and in the shootout, where Carolina essentially failed to score on five breakaways with two in overtime (Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask) and three failed shootout attempts (Justin Williams, Jaccob Slavin and Aho).
“We had to make sure we got the point, right?” Peters said when asked why the Skinner line, centered by Derek Ryan and with rookie Janne Kuokkanen on the other wing, was benched. “So they were minus-3 as a line at that time and had given up other opportunities. So eventually it’s gotta end, right? So to me, there’s no sense in letting them go minus-4.”
Earlier in the game the coaching staff had split up Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin, moving Haydn Fleury into the top four with Faulk and Hanifin on a pairing with Trevor van Riemsdyk, under similar circumstances.
“We had some guys that were minus-2 right off the hop, early in the game.” Peters said. “And then another one off the crossbar with the same group of guys on the ice. So we could’ve been down dash-three in the first.,”
Skinner, meanwhile has spent almost all of his time this season with one player.
According to Dobber Hockey’s line combination tool, Skinner has played 80.54 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes playing with Ryan. Ryan has been held to one even strength point, a primary assist on Skinner’s goal in Calgary, this season.
The same is true on the power play, where Skinner has played 86.51 percent of his 27:41 of power play time playing with Ryan. Ryan scored a power play goal on a deflection in the opener and got a secondary assist on Skinner’s last-second first period power play Sunday against the Ducks.
By playing his best scorer with a player in Ryan who thus far hasn’t produced this season (and Josh Jooris, who hasn’t carved out a full-time spot in the lineup yet, will be on the wing opposite Skinner in Colorado) and also anchoring him to the bench in a game 3-3 game, Peters may be unnecessarily living or dying on his defensive laurels.
Finally, the decision to recall Patrick Brown as an extra body for the road trip is the perfect example of Peters’ commitment to preventing goals instead of scoring them.
Brown is a perfectly suitable fill-in on the fourth line — a disciplined, hard-working grinder who can provide energy and kill penalties if needed.
And if he did play because someone got injured, that’s where he’d be — on the fourth line, playing eight minutes or so. It’s the trickle-up effect that would — and already is; see Jooris — hurt Carolina.
One can argue six of the 13 forwards on the active roster are, at best, fringe top-nine players if not fourth-liners. Two — Ryan and Jooris — will play alongside Skinner in Denver. If someone on the top two lines were to get hurt in that game, Brown would play in Arizona and the top two lines would be impacted (unless Skinner moved up).
So why not instead recall Valentin Zykov — who in 120 AHL games has the same number of goals (28) as Brown in 205, plus scored once in two games with Carolina to Brown’s one in 28 NHL games — since there are plenty of bottom six options? Any of Zykov, Lucas Wallmark, Andrew Miller, Phil Di Giuseppe or even Warren Foegele would have made as much or more sense.
Which brings us back to the next week’s worth of games. Talent-wise, it’s fair to say Carolina has the upper hand on its two road opponents, Colorado and Arizona, along with Florida, who visits PNC Arena on Tuesday.
It’s an important trip for the Hurricanes, who weathered October and now need emerge from the NHL’s fuzzy fringe into playoff contention. Peters needs to, starting Thursday, prove his conservative nature is the “right way” or otherwise adapt to unleash his offense.
If not, Carolina may be out of the postseason race early once again — and all eyes will be on Peters.