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April 13, 2006

The 'Canes Scrutiny
Could special teams play be the difference between the Carolina Hurricanes winning or falling short of the Stanley Cup?

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- I can easily picture Steve Yzerman grabbing the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman like he was picking up an old friend at the airport. I can imagine Zdeno Chara hoisting the Cup over his head and making sparks on the rafters as he skates around the rink. I can see Mike Modano handing the chalice to Marty Turco, thanking him for one last great ride. 

So why haven't my postseason hockey daydreams included the Carolina Hurricanes yet?

It just doesn't make sense, from a practical standpoint. They are either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the East. They've lost only seven times on home ice. They have four players with 30 or more goals and one player in Eric Staal approaching (or surpassing) 100 points. 

They've gotten good goaltending and, at times, they're the most aggressively spectacular team in the National Hockey League on both sides of the puck. 

All that said, I seem to be the only one not getting swept up by these Hurricanes. 

Kara Yorio of The Sporting News predicts Carolina will win the Cup, and quotes OLN studio host Bill Clement as saying the same thing. They won310-709-4743t be the only ones labeling the boys from Raleigh as championship favorites as the playoffs arrive. 

I would have been on that bandwagon in the first few months of the season, when the 'Canes were skating all over the ice under these goal-juicing new rules. They exhibited the kind of speed and killer instinct Tampa Bay had during its Cup run, save for the fact that Carolina may have a quicker defense and didn't have to drag Andreychuk up and down the ice. The 'Canes were aggressive, hungry and looked like a champion. Adding over 2,100 career points in Doug Weight and Mark Recchi during the regular season only increased their odds. 

I've seen them several times since the Olympic break. Something's different. Many will point to the significant injury to Erik Cole back on March 4, when Brooks Orpik tried to perform some amateur cranial surgery on him near the boards. Cole had 30 goals when he suffered a fractured vertebra; he's such a sparkplug — you can't replace that intensity. 

But losing Cole doesn't explain the baffling inconsistency on the Hurricanes' special teams. They're 16th in the league on the powerplay (18.0 percent) and 14th on the kill (82.0). How can a team be third in the NHL in goals per game (3.54) and be that bad with the man advantage?

The bigger question is how a team with that much speed can be that bad on the kill, considering what I saw against the Capitals last week. The Hurricanes scored three — THREE! — shorthanded goals against Washington, using their speed and transition game to completely embarrass the Caps' hapless powerplay. 

Evidently, it was an anomaly. The Hurricanes' aggressive nature has been their greatest weapon at even-strength and worst enemy on special teams, like on the Capitals' first goal of that game, which came on the powerplay. 

"We gave up the goal because we were too aggressive. But we've been too aggressive all year. I guess it's just part of the identity of the team," said coach Peter Laviolette. 

That's got to be a disturbing evaluation for anyone who's predicting a Carolina Cup (sounds like a NASCAR race, naturally) victory this season. Name one recent winner that didn't do it with poise and patience when it counted. (And no, the Bolts don't count; that series was more defensive than people care to remember.) 

I decided to call on one of my favorite hockey bloggers,
The Acid Queen, to offer a little insight into her Hurricanes' special teams troubles: 

"The hot-and-cold running penalty kill is more or less a casualty of the system. When you run an aggressive puck-pursuit game like the 'Canes do, defense tends to suffer because the team's energy is directed towards offense and--aside from Glen Wesley--our defensemen for the most part seem to have trouble cycling from defense to offense and then back to defense. The team that hangs a five-spot's worth of shorties on one team one night can become the team that gets a touchdown scored on them the next night by another team's power-play unit."

Makes sense. What doesn't make sense are all of these pundits that seem to have faith in a team that can't keep their wits about them shorthanded, whose powerplay is inconsistent at best, and that has a goaltender with about as much NHL postseason experience as Phil Kessel. 

If Cole doesn't make a miraculous return in the second round to give the Canes a kick in the backside, can the current incarnation win the Cup?

The Acid Queen makes a good point when she says that the team is well over .500 against the other playoff teams this season and scores a ton of goals against those same teams. She also thinks there's a psychological component to the Hurricanes' special teams struggles:

"Part of the problem is that the team isn't as loose as they were at the start of the season when everybody had the 'Canes pegged to be in my mom's basement with the Capitals fighting over who gets to clean the cat box," she said. "If the team can get back to where they were just having fun, then I think the powerplay will recover."

See, it's all in their heads. 

Good thing there won't be any pressure on the Hurricanes in the postseason.

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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