The Carolina Hurricanes’ 0-5-2 start is the worst in franchise history, and it’s easy to identify reasons.
Injuries have hurt. Scarce even-strength scoring has been a problem. So have inconsistent goaltending and defensive-zone miscues.
But not penalty killing. In the past five games, the Canes’ penalty killing has been as solid as other areas have been shaky.
After allowing four power-play goals to the New York Islanders in the first two games of the season, the Hurricanes killed off 16 consecutive penalties before the Edmonton Oilers scored on a power play Friday. And the Canes came away from that one steaming.
Canes defenseman Brett Bellemore had the puck to the side of the Carolina net and was set to clear the zone when the Oilers’ Benoit Pouliot whacked him across the hands with his stick. No penalty was called, and Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle scored for a 3-2 lead in the third period.
Canes coach Bill Peters and assistant Rod Brind’Amour were so incensed by the no-call that referee Brad Meier did make a call – an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. But the Canes regained their composure, killed off that penalty and tied the score before losing 6-3.
Assistant coach Steve Smith is in charge of the penalty-kill units, and there were concerns after the two Isles games. But tweaks were made, the movement was more in synch and the kills came.
“We’re just getting more efficient at it, I think,” forward Jay McClement said last week. “We started to realize our responsibilities a little better. The first few games, we kind of knew them, but we weren’t that fluid. We were kind of second-guessing. Now, we seem to be getting better (and) everyone is on their toes, ready to go.
“We’re getting better. It will always be a work in progress, but the more you can do it with the same group of guys the more you can read off them and start working better as a unit.”
Jordan Staal was to be a big part of the penalty-kill group but broke his right leg during preseason. More recently, Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer have been sidelined with injuries, keeping two reliable penalty killers out of the lineup.
Against the Oilers, Carolina had McClement with forward Brad Malone and defensemen Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason on one penalty-killing unit. A second unit had forwards Riley Nash and Jiri Tlusty with defensemen Ron Hainsey and Bellemore. Defensemen Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk also were used.
On a first-period penalty kill after a Harrison penalty, McClement and then Nash pressured the puck deep in the Oilers’ zone. Hainsey blocked a shot. McClement made a play to clear the puck. Gleason got a stick on the puck in front and passed to Sekera. Goalie Anton Khudobin made some stops.
Before Monday’s games, the Canes were 14th in the NHL at 80.8 percent.
“We have a new system, a new philosophy and a lot of it is just timing and communication,” Malone said. “Obviously when you’re out there against the best players from the other team, you need to be in synch. We have had less indecision and figured out kind of where to go and where to stay.”
Malone, who signed a free-agent contract with the Canes this year, said he was a penalty killer with the Lake Erie Monsters in the American Hockey League last season but not used on the penalty killing in his 32 games with the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s something you take pride in,” Malone said. “If it makes a difference of me being in or out of the lineup, I’ll lay down in front of as many pucks as I can.”
The Canes will finish a four-game Canadian road trip Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks, and captain Eric Staal will return after missing the past five games with an upper body injury. The Canucks (5-3-0) topped the Washington Capitals 4-2 Sunday, getting power-play goals from Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata.
“Penalty killing can be the difference in winning or losing most nights,” McClement said. “You need to be consistent. If we can be solid at it all year, we give ourselves a better chance to win every night.”
Or for now, a chance to get their first win.