It was a tough night for Jaccob Slavin on the scoresheet, denied first a goal and then an assist through no fault of his own. Putting up points has never really been his forte, though, even if he’s capable of it. It’s his work in his own end that made him the Carolina Hurricanes’ No. 1 defenseman.
In that regard, he seems to do his best work against the best opposition, like the ethereal defensive master class he performed against Connor McDavid in October. Friday against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was closer to that level, as he has been more often lately.
It has been an up and down season for Slavin and defensive partner Brett Pesce at times, both laboring under the expectations of new contracts and the accompanying awareness of the rest of the NHL of their ability, but like the team, they appear to have turned a corner.
Friday’s 2-1 win was the Hurricanes’ sixth straight at home and seventh in the past eight games, and just as this was more of what the Hurricanes expect from their best defenseman, the recent weeks have been more of what the Hurricanes expected from their entire season.
“I think I got off to a slow start, but as of late it’s been going in the right direction,” Slavin said. “I just have to keep working on the defensive side of the puck first. Obviously there was a span there where I was getting scored on a lot. That’s kind of slowed down, thankfully, so I just have to work on playing ‘D’ first and take the offense when it comes.”
Friday, the offense was actually taken away from him. Slavin was a broken-up fight away from a bizarro-world Gordie Howe hat trick. He had a goal disallowed by a debatable goaltender interference call on Derek Ryan, then was not awarded an assist on Sebastian Aho’s game-winner because of a scoring decision that was excessively pedantic at best and needlessly malicious at worse. (Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry’s terrible pokecheck of a loose puck, directly to Aho, was deemed a “giveaway,” bizarrely. Slavin and Pesce would have picked up assists in 30 other NHL buildings, especially playing for the home team.)
At least that one counted. There was considerable consternation over the one that didn’t, which was ruled a goal on the ice and then overturned by a Pittsburgh challenge. Ryan was shoved backward, but not into Jarry, then contacted Jarry while the goalie was inside the crease and Ryan was outside it. It was a 50-50 call, and in the NHL, you’re better off flipping a coin than trying to figure out how a review like that will go.
“You’re not getting that call against Pittsburgh very often, you know what I mean?” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. “You’re not getting it in Pitt. I thought we might get it here. But it didn’t happen that way.”
Still, Aho’s goal came while the crowd was still booing the decision, which is the kind of gritty resilience that the Hurricanes lacked not only earlier this season but in recent years. The Hurricanes then killed off two Pittsburgh power plays and almost 90 seconds of six-on-five to hold onto the win, no small task when three of those six skaters are Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.
A big part of what’s happened lately in that respect is a few unexpected pieces clicking into place. Klas Dahlbeck sat out 26 of the Hurricanes’ first 30 games before playing in five of the past six over Haydn Fleury, and Scott Darling played his way out of the starting job in net just as Cam Ward played his way into it.
At the moment, the Hurricanes are a better team with Dahlbeck, on his natural left side instead of shoehorned onto the right, playing alongside Justin Faulk. That pairing battled the Malkin line to a draw on Friday, allowing Slavin and Pesce to focus on Crosby to great effect. Ward’s puckhandling, meanwhile, has smoothed over rough edges on the defense.
Dahlbeck certainly deserves credit for his patience, but he deserves just as much credit for making the most of this opportunity.
“I was pretty much in the same spot last year at the start of the year,” Dahlbeck said. “I think I learned a lot from that. Just staying positive, keep working hard, and I know when I get an opportunity if I play well I’m going to get more chances, that’s how it works. Right now, hockey is very fun.”
Between Dahlbeck’s emergence and Ward’s hot streak in net, the Hurricanes have found a groove on the back end that has allowed them to dramatically limit their goals against during this run that’s allowed them to narrow, if not close, the gap with the eighth playoff spot.
And poor Fleury: The team is 6-0-1 when he’s not in the lineup this season, which isn’t necessarily his fault but doesn’t create any sense that his return is imminent.
Peters confirmed it will be Darling in net Saturday night in St. Louis, as big a start as he has had in his brief Carolina career. The starting job is Ward’s for the moment, and even a good night from Darling won’t change that, at least not right away. But a bad night would only solidify Ward’s status and make it even tougher for Darling to get another chance before the next back-to-back, which is two weeks away.
This latest resurgence has occurred entirely with Ward in net, Darling having been banished since the 8-1 loss in Toronto, the team’s only blemish in almost three weeks. How well the Hurricanes play in front of Darling on Saturday will be as much of a test as how Darling plays, because they have figured out how to win without him and have to find out if they can win with him behind this retooled defense, with Dahlbeck in and Slavin and Pesce back to where they were always expected to be.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock