Having allowed just three regulation goals and accumulated three points in the standings through the first two games of the 2013-14 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes have already demonstrated just how much tougher and smarter they are.
The 'Canes entered the final minute of the third period leading in both games of their campaign-opening homestand.
Much of that success should be credited to the defense. The unit, featuring four players with fewer than 15 games of Hurricanes experience, has held two high-powered opponents to just four tallies in almost 125 minutes.
The Red Wings and Flyers, two dynasties with 34 playoff berths (out of a maximum 36) over the past 18 seasons, found themselves utterly stumped by Carolina's schemes for enormous swaths of time over the weekend.
That's a tremendously different story than usual for the Hurricanes' back end, which ranked second-to-last in the NHL just a year ago. Suddenly, the 'Canes are winning board battles, forcing passes into nonthreatening zones and simply outworking opponents all shift long.
Such improved positioning has also translated to more takeaways, increased puck control and better chances on the forecheck.
Indeed, the 'Canes performance in the real-time statistics group (hits, blocked shots, takeaways and faceoff percentage)—as well on the penalty kill, where they currently stand at a perfect 5 of 5—is at a four-year high.
Consider the following per-game rates over the past four seasons, with green shading representing a top-10 league rank and red a bottom-10 rank:
Carolina's 2013-14 numbers are, albeit with a tiny sample size, miles better than any they've recorded in other recent years. The 'Canes currently boast the NHL's second-highest takeaways total, sixth-best faceoff percentage and top-ranked penalty kill.
Yet the turnaround is not only clear on the box score. It's also blatantly obvious on the ice.
Philadelphia managed just 18 shots on goal in Sunday's match, the fewest by a 'Canes opponent since Feb. 20, 2012. Why? The Hurricanes simply didn't give them any time or space in the offensive zone.
In the following graphic, the Flyers have dumped the puck deep to Scott Hartnell (orange box) with Carolina's Andrej Sekera (red), Riley Nash (black) and Justin Faulk (blue) also visible:
Moments later, Hartnell has been completely tied up by Faulk and forced the puck along the boards. Nash scraps in the corner in a scrum he'd eventually win, while Sekera and Radek Dvorak block the center of the ice and any possible passing angle. Any potential scoring chance has completely dissipated.
The image below illustrates another similar effective backcheck one period later. The Flyers have just sent the puck around the glass down low:
As Nash occupies the puck battle, Sekera forces Zac Rinaldo out of a scoring position and Jeff Skinner and Dvorak converge to prevent a dangerous centering opportunity:
The exact same defensive positioning is employed yet again on the next shift—and, despite the slight change in puck location, has an identical effect:
The 'Canes even took to using the two-man attack scheme offensively. Moments before Dvorak's second-period game-winning goal, Skinner and Nash close on Luke Schenn from both sides to force the costly pass up the middle:
If Carolina is to pull off the upset Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, they'll need to run the same strategies with perhaps even more confidence—and perhaps an additional goal or two, as well.
However, the effects of a full Kirk Muller-led training camp are already shining brightly.
The Hurricanes a defensive team? It's beginning to look like more and more of a reality.
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