RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes host the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena on Sunday.
The matchup will be the two teams’ first of three this season and the initial encounter for head coach Bill Peters against his former team.
Since coming in, Peters has employed a more detailed approach to a system of play that when played properly and effectively, involves all five players, including the defenseman on the rush.
Not able to claim perfection on many nights so far with a Hurricanes team that sits with an 8-14-3 record with 19 points in the NHL’s Metropolitan Division, the work completed by this team in recent games has shown signs of what the Peters style of hockey truly looks like.
Carolina will face Detroit as part of a five-game home stand following a 2-1 win over Nashville on Tuesday that was sandwiched between losses to Pittsburgh (3-2) last Saturday and most recently against Washington (2-1) on Thursday.
Following the morning skate preceding the matchup against the Capitals, forward Zach Boychuk talked about what worked effectively against the Predators, then Central Division leaders who hadn’t lost in four games coming in to Raleigh.
For anyone watching that game, it was a sleepy affair that didn’t look overly exciting as both teams skated from end-to-end, had ample chances to score, but for the most part, completed most of their work filling up the neutral zone to slow each other’s attack.
“Guys were in the right spots, you didn’t really have much time with the puck,” Boychuk said.
“So, you’re just tryin’ to put it in some spots where it’s safe and you get it in. It was a good technical game by both teams. There were some chances that went either way as well, but a good tight checking game.”
For players like Boychuk, understanding roles has become part of the process for every player on the team to learn and accept in playing a ‘five-man game’ as Peters has termed it.
It’s a brand of hockey that many NHL coaches have employed, and particularly so amongst recent opponents.
Thus, the one-goal chess matches that have ensued have become more about waiting for opportunity and leaving little room for error.
Having played in every line from top to bottom so far this season, Boychuk understands what’s expected of him as a pupil in the Peters system.
The seventh-year pro has continued to learn how to adjust his play in the NHL and how to do it according to the priority of the position he’s directed to play on a given night.
“I think the lines have changed quite a bit,” Boychuk continued.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve gotten some opportunities on some of the top lines and also I’ve had some opportunities in the energy role. I feel whatever role they put me in, I am tryin’ to play that to the best of my ability and everybody else is doing that as well.”
For any player on the Hurricanes roster, from ordained and expected scorers to checkers and energy players, it has seemed that learning how to play in a five-man system has shown lapses in execution, and many times not due to a lack of energy to do so.
This team has played erratically and inconsistently throughout the early part of the season and has paid the price with strings of losses, but not for lack of effort.
Rather, more for not feeling comfortable with how to play together in the manner that they’ve been instructed to do so.
“That’s the way it is sometimes,” Boychuk continued.
“Sometimes if you’re trying too hard, and that’s when you start makin’ mistakes and you get out of position. So you focus on your positioning more and go hard at the right times and play smart.”
Playing smarter has turned the team’s recent games into placid-looking affairs, but ones that shows the teachings of what Peters has presented.
“We’re startin’ to get some more chemistry,” Boychuk continued.
“November was better, December started out pretty good, so hopefully guys keep playin’ at that level.”
As defensive responsibility from all five players on the ice has become the priority and lesson to learn, for a team that holds a 3-7 record in its last 10 games, Carolina must still put pucks in the net to win more games.
For obvious reasons, offense can become overshadowed when focusing on defense too much, and particularly so for scorers who’s mindset must change to employ both.
Having finished last season as the American Hockey League’s (AHL) top goal scorer, Boychuk knows that he can’t let that be forgotten, even while playing in a third or fourth-line energy role.
It’s part of the teachings that secondary scoring is a priority as much as checking is.
That’s the point of the game – to score more goals than the other team.
If putting pucks in the net is a strength you bring to the rink, then you must produce as well – at both ends.
“I think there’s always pressure to put up points and to score goals and contribute,” Boychuk said.
“You wanna’ stay in the lineup as much as you can. We’ve got a lot forwards right now and you wanna’ do everything you can to contribute, but it all starts with how you’re playin’ defensively and how you’re playin’ the game – your intensity level. If you’re playin’ the game hard, the goals will come.”
Talking with Boychuk appears to show that he’s been the ideal pupil in trying to execute Peters’ teachings.
He recites back what Peters has preached in every media scrum he’s held since coming to Carolina.
He’s worked on every line without any issue and has put up some points, a modest three goals and two assists.
His play has been effective as the results for the output he’ presented has Boychuk sitting with a plus-three rating, a category that he leads the team in.
He’s only one of four players occupying the positive side of that stat for a team that sits in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Going up against one of the best teams in the league and one that often-times employs the five-man game to perfection, Peters and the Hurricanes will truly see where they stand in their execution of the same.
Having cut his teeth on that system of play for three years while preparing to become a head coach himself, it is time for Peters and his pupils to test themselves against his mentor and friend, Red Wings head coach, Mike Babcock and his squad.
However, be forewarned that if chess-like strategy and defensive play is not your choice of game to watch, you may need to get a coffee or two to stay awake.
Yet, also be ready for that caffeine infusion to spike sharply when the goals scored in the game will result.
The question will be, just how often will that occur and for what side will the winning margin rest with.