This round of NHL Predictions looks at a cross-conference matchup between what should be a potential Stanely Cup matchup. However, one looks like a contender and the other more of a mixed bag. The Carolina Hurricanes will keep up their homestand as they welcome the Vegas Gold Knights in this one.
Carolina is coming off of another loss that saw the team plagued by a lack of finishing. While that has certainly been better this year, that 2-1 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals felt like typical Hurricanes hockey as of the last few years. While goaltending has been the topic of focus in Carolina lately, Pyotr Kochetkov has put together a string of impressive performances. The team just couldn’t pull it out for him against the Capitals.
Meanwhile, Vegas enters the matchup coming off of a 5-2 win against the Ottawa Senators. They lead the league in points and have gone 7-1-2 in their last ten. Jack Eichel leads the team in points with 36 while Captain Mark Stone is close behind with 32. Eichel is on a ten-game point streak. This is going to be a tough one for Carolina. Can they beat the best of the West (well and the league as a whole)? Here are three keys to a path to victory.
NHL Predictions: Carolina Hurricanes vs Vegas Golden Knights
Three Keys to Victory for the Hurricanes
Third Line Contributing
The Hurricanes line of Jesper Fast, Jordan Martinook and Jordan Staal has been the most consistent line for Carolina for last year and this. They are labelled as the team’s third line but almost seem like a fourth line depending on how you look at it. Rod Brind’Amour loves this line and it’s no secret why. They forecheck relentlessly. They seem to never take a shift off and will come at the opposition in waves. Staal uses his big frame to control the puck down low and generate chances from below the goal line while Fast uses his speed (no pun intended) and Martinook his energy and physicality.
As a line, they are in the top ten in the league for forward lines and defensive pairs playing at least 100 minutes in expected goals percentage with 63.4%. They are also in the top ten in expected goals for forward lines with 13 while leading the league in Corsi and second in Fenwick. So they drive play a lot and generate a lot. This is nothing new.
But for a line that has played in the top five in the league in minutes together for a forward line, they need to produce. The NHL has evolved and you have to have contribution from all lines to be successful. As a line, they have seven goals for and nine goals against. Other lines that have played similar minutes have put in 15 or more goals. Some of this is the line’s utilization, but it also is the players. Yeah, they aren’t the most skilled players on the team. But they have shown they can score at times. They can play their game and get gritty goals. And they should, they count the same. For a team as deep and strong as Vegas, this line getting on the scoresheet would pay dividends.
Attack the Middle
Protecting the middle of the ice defensively and attacking it offensively seems like a no-duh piece of hockey strategy. But for a key to beating the Vegas Golden Knights, Carolina has to focus on this. Vegas is very good at keeping the puck out of the net. They are in the top five in the league at GA/GP with 2.50. As seen by the chart below from hockeyviz.com, Vegas accomplishes this by pushing shots to the outside and protecting the middle of the ice. What does get through seems to come in the middle of the ice but they are limiting those chances.
Carolina needs to attack this in multiple ways. If they want to do their normal win the puck low and get it to the point for shots, fine. But they absolutely have to crash the net for rebounds and tips. This is going to be tough as Vegas has very strong defencemen, both physically and in defensive ability. It’s also tough because Adin Hill only gives up .048 rebounds per save. So if he sees the puck, he’s probably going to stop it and hold it. Net front presence is essential.
Another option is to set up more of a bumper play where the puck starts at the point. The defenceman then fakes a shot to which the defensive coverage would move inward. Then the puck is moved to the half wall or the corner while the net front forward steps out to the slot while the far side forward takes a step out backdoor. If done quickly and effectively, the puck can then be moved to the slot forward or backdoor as the defence attempts to move to cover the corner. If the defence collapses don’t force it, just move it back to the point and look for a shot, a try from the other point, or send it right back to try to set it up again. Puck movement is key.
Of course, there are other options to generate chances, but Carolina needs to use other teams’ expectations of them to create some surprises and this play might work. Whatever they do, if they want to get more than one goal on Vegas they have to focus on attacking the middle of the ice.
No Time Off
Carolina’s system relies on all hands on deck. It is a machine that works when all of its parts are functioning well. But when one part falters, it is only as strong as its weakest link. This was seen in their loss to the Capitals. They played pretty much a perfect game 5v5 based on how they want to operate. But the difference was that they could only muster one goal and gave up one that could have been avoided but for a defensive breakdown. As seen below, the Capitals gained the zone, Martin Fehervary joined the rush, and then Martin Necas and Brent Burns ended up running into each other covering the same guy. The result? A Capitals goal.
— NHL (@NHL) December 18, 2023
If they are going to play a tight-checking game, they cannot have mental lapses or breakdowns. Hockey is so fast and unpredictable that when this inevitably happens the goalie can bail you out of a few, but letting a guy walk down the middle uncontested is not a recipe for success. Carolina’s system puts a lot of expectations on the players as Rod Brind’Amour preaches that no one can take a breath. But at times they have shown they can execute. To beat a team as skilled and powerful as Vegas, it will take everyone playing a consistent game with limited mental breakdowns, turnovers, and lapses in focus.
This will be a very tough battle for Carolina. Vegas has plenty of weapons and is very effective at protecting their net. Both teams will generate chances in waves but Vegas has more of that star power offensively to finish. While it seems hard to see Carolina getting over Vegas in this one, sometimes the team elevates its game to its competition. Kochetkov has been great lately but the team needs a complete game to win. Not just a defensive masterclass or offensive explosion at the expense of the other. Being at home should be helpful for Carolina but Vegas is such a strong team this year that it will be tough.
Prediction: Vegas wins 3-2
Main Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports