Praising Carolina's defense isn't bold these days, but that's because they're just very good.
Wednesday's victory was a good example of what makes them a big-time contender: we saw players forcing the Islanders to the outside, extreme backchecking pressure from every line and just general hard work. All of a sudden, the team that just barely won Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, is on the verge of their first sweep in franchise history and doing so without a forward in the top 20 in playing scoring. Carolina has had some ugly efforts in the playoffs, and not many would have pegged Warren Foegele or Jordan Staal to be the top-scoring fowards for the Hurricanes, but they're getting the job done.
Not many people predicted Carolina to defeat Washington, who, on paper, had the stronger team. But hockey is played on the ice, in case you weren't aware, and that's why the playoffs are so much fun. But it's especially impressive when you look at how inexperienced the Hurricanes' defense corps is in the playoffs: Dougie Hamilton had played the most spring hockey on Carolina's back end with 23 games over three playoff runs, and just Calvin de Haan (16) and Trevor Van Riemsdyk (15) have playoff experience besides that. With this being Carolina's first trip past Game 82 in 10 years, none of the team's drafted-and-developed defensemen had any post-season expertise to fall back on.
But you couldn't tell that from watching them. Just to show how important Carolina's defense group has been, of the 77 points accumulated by 15 players on the Hurricanes during the playoffs, 27 points have come from the team's top four defensemen, or 35 percent. For comparison, San Jose's top-four has also combined for 27 points, but Burns and Erik Karlsson account for 21 of them, with 29 percent of the Sharks' 93 points coming from its top-four.
Jaccob Slavin, in particular, has been phenomenal for the Hurricanes: the big defender hasn't scored yet but he does have 11 assists (the most of anyone in the playoffs) to tie Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns for first in scoring among defensemen. Slavin's defense partner, Hamilton, has seven points himself, with Brett Pesce (five) and Faulk (four) also adding some offense.
Slavin and Hamilton have been one of the best defensive duos in the league during the playoffs. At all strengths, the pair's Corsi For rate is 61.32. On New York, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk combined for 44.44, and Leddy and Thomas Hickey, the Isles' current top pairing with Boychuk out of action, is 39.51. Individually, Justin Faulk is No. 1 among defensemen with at least 150 minutes of ice time in Corsi For at all strengths with 82, with Hamilton sitting fourth at 63 and Slavin in 10th at 47. In terms of points per 60, Slavin's 2.17 rating is the best among defenseman still playing in the playoffs, with Hamilton sitting close behind with 2.06 in sixth.
The Hurricanes currently sit fourth in fewest goals against per game in the entire playoffs with 2.30, but the Islanders have allowed even less at 2.00. Goaltending-wise, Robin Lehner looked like the more attractive option in the second round given his Vezina nod, but a shared effort by Petr Mrzaek and Curtis McElhinney in net for Carolina has prevailed. At Carolina's current rate of 29 shots a game, their 117 shots against would be just two shy of Colorado's 115 through four games of play. Carolina has taken and faced 88 shots so far in the second round, so the Islanders are doing a good job in their own zone so far, but Carolina's top stars have been snakebitten through the playoffs as a whole.
Goals, as a whole, have been tough to come by in the second-round matchup between Carolina and New York. Winger Teuvo Teravainen is the only Canes player with two goals in the series, and Pesce, Slavin, Faulk and Hamilton have combined for six points between them. Part of Carolina's success in Game 3 was simply keeping the puck away from the Islanders, forcing them to make mistakes and chase the Hurricanes' pace. In the playoffs, you don't need to play pretty to win games, you just have to win: two power-play goals by Hamilton with Slavin setting up the shots made Washington's comeback effort impossible in Game 3 of the first round, Carolina's first playoff win since 2009, while a three-point night by Slavin in Game 7 was crucial in the team's 4-3 victory in double overtime.
Carolina may not be a high-flying offensive powerhouse in the playoffs this year, but the Hurricanes are showing they know how to utilize the back end to create offense. And with Game 4 on the horizon, the Hurricanes can sweep the series to become the first team to advance to the third round. If they do, the Hurricanes have a couple of strong defensemen to thank.
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