How the Metro Can Hurt: The Carolina Hurricanes' Staal Attack

Not the matchup you're looking for. - Bruce Bennett

What will each Metro team need to keep the Islanders from the playoffs? The Canes will need to continue feasting on the Isles.

With the Carolina Hurricanes bringing some "Southleast" cooking to the expanded Patrick Metropolitan Division, many Islanders fans count on it being a fall-off-the-bone, pushover kind of feast.

But there is the small matter of the Hurricanes sweeping the Islanders in two of the past three season series.

The teams have oddly alternated sweeps, with luck briefly swinging back the Islanders' way to go 4-0 in 2011-12 (including one OT win and one shootout win) before the Hurricanes resumed their sweeping ways with three wins (one shootout) in the lockout-shortened 2012-13.

The Hurricanes have compiled only a 39% winning percentage against all their Metro foes over the past three seasons, so they'll need that to improve and they'll likely hope to count on more success against the Isles to do so.

How have the Hurricanes done it? In truth, the games have been closer than the records indicate, and in multiple instances the Canes have won games where the Isles dominated.

One area where the Canes have won the battle is with the Staals. Eric Staal has always been a successful threat against the Islanders, compiling 35 points in 34 career games versus the Islanders. Last season Eric was a force even when the rest of the team faltered, but he welcomed his brother Jordan to the fold to create two problems for the Isles.

As Canes blog Shutudown Line observed after the disappointing loss in Kevin Poulin's start last February:

As a team, the Canes seem to have much less of a problem gaining the blue-line with control whenever they play the Islanders. Jordan Staal, Alex Semin and Patrick Dwyer didn't have much of a problem when it came to entering the Islanders zone and setting up plays because they always had enough room to enter their territory with possession of the puck.

Ah, but to be fair, the same post notes Jordan looked awful for the first two periods. Which gets to the crux of the matter, which we'll revisit in a moment...

Meanwhile, Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty have enjoyed dangerous games against the Isles since their partnership formed, but have also suffered when the Isles were at their best. From Shutdown's look at the teams' meeting last April:

One of the reasons why the Isles top-six performed so well defensively was the play of their shutdown defense pairing of Travis Hamonic & Andy MacDonald. These two logged well over 20 minutes of even strength ice time and surrendered only one scoring chance when they were together. They also spent most of their ice time against Eric Staal's line, which was held in check and crushed defensively for most of this game.

John Tavares is getting better and better as a all-zone player, so it won't make sense for the Canes to have Eric Staal's line against him when they can avoid it. However, if they can reasonably mitigate Tavares with, say, Jordan Staal in a defensive role, it would free Eric to log points against easier competition.

Ultimately, however, Isles fans welcoming Carolina to the division are right to be optimistic: This is a beatable opponent, one from whom the Isles should be taking the majority of points. The biggest risk of that not happening comes from a familiar sore spot for Isles fans, one who would enable the Staals to do their damage: In February, it was Kevin Poulin giving up some bad goals, while in April it was Evgeni Nabokov's turn to let in some softies.

In both instances, the Islanders controlled play for large and early parts of the game but did not get the offensive bounces and/or saves to carry the day. Essentially, the Isles are fully capable of getting the better of the Canes, but when they slip up, even if just briefly, the Staals are dangerous enough to make them pay.

Now, hockey is a game of generally narrow margins and the outcome of any game is as liable to be influenced by luck (flukes, officiating, bounces) as by one factor declared in preseason. (And the Hurricanes have other worries, like the health of Joni Pitkanen.) But if Carolina passes the Isles this year, it will likely come via winning the season series. And if they win the season series again, it will likely come via the Staals getting opportunistic production in the rare moments when the Isles aren't controlling play.

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