There are some smart people working in Carolina.
Noah Hanifin is one of them.
The Norwood native, playing in front of approximately 50 family members and friends at TD Garden on Thursday night, pulled off a trick that fooled Patrice Bergeron, of all people, in overtime. Hanifin, who should be a freshman at Boston College (he accelerated to become an Eagle one season early last year), executed the play of the night to set up Phillip Di Giuseppe’s winning strike.
“He’s elite,” Carolina coach Bill Peters said of Hanifin after the 3-2 win. “This kid’s a lot of fun. A lot of fun to coach. A lot of fun to see him develop. I thought he had a real good night here. He’s got a real huge upside. His upside — we’ll see when it’s all said and done. But I’ll tell you what, he’s a good player right now at 19 years old.”
The Hurricanes are a small-market team. They do not have the luxury of signing, acquiring, or retaining big-ticket items. It’s why they had to trade Eric Staal to the Rangers for two second-round picks. It’s why they’ll let Cam Ward walk and find a better and cheaper goalie to fight for the crease alongside Eddie Lack next season.
As such, the Hurricanes have to identify and exploit inefficiencies, whether it’s with their roster or on the ice. From general manager Ron Francis to Peters to Hanifin to analyst Eric Tulsky, the Hurricanes are trying to think about the game in a different way, one that will level the ice against the big-budget boys.
Hanifin helped them do that against the Bruins, the team that had him atop their wish list at last June’s draft.
Three-on-three overtime is made for players such as Hanifin. The 19-year-old is already one of the league’s best skaters. His hockey sense is excellent. Hanifin is mature beyond his age, which he showed during overtime.
When he settled the puck in the offensive zone, Hanifin identified that there wasn’t much he could do. The Bruins were in position to snuff out any attack. So Hanifin did what is forbidden during standard play but encouraged in overtime. He skated the puck out of the zone to trigger a regroup.
“I thought we were kind of running out of room there in the offensive zone,” Hanifin said. “So I tried to bring it out, regroup with Cam, and try to get a change.”
Hanifin was thinking several plays ahead when he exited the offensive zone. His foresight proved him right.
By leaving the zone and backtracking toward his net, Hanifin forced the Bruins to chase him. Hanifin confused his opponents by passing the puck back to Ward. It is a high-risk maneuver to pass the puck to a goalie weighed down with all kinds of gear and wielding a battle-ax for a stick. But it is a play the Hurricanes practiced once the puck dropped on 2015-16.
“Day 1 in camp,” Peters said. “It was great coming into the season. We talked about it. We said, ‘Hey, when you’re under siege, instead of making a high-risk play or taking a lollipop risk from the blue line — which is a good play five-on-five but not three-on-three — let’s take it back to the goaltender and support them. If we need to get a change, get a change. Get fresh bodies out.’ The period is a long change, right? So it’s harder for the defensive team to change.”
Peters considers Ward and Lack good at handling the puck. He does not consider his goalies liabilities when it comes to touches. In fact, it plays into the organization’s philosophy: Treat the puck like it’s a diamond.
“We believe you’ve got to hang on to the puck in overtime,” Peters said. “Once you give it up, you typically don’t get it back. You’ve got to defend, defend, defend. We don’t want to do that. We want to be an attacking team and a puck-possession team. That’s part of it.”
After playing the puck back to Ward, the goalie dropped it off for his young defenseman. At the same time, Bergeron headed for the bench for a change. Hanifin read that he could catch Bergeron with his pants down. Bergeron realized too late that Jeff Skinner was pulling away down the ice. Before Bergeron could recover, Hanifin snapped a long-distance pass onto Skinner’s blade. Tuukka Rask stuffed Skinner’s bid, but Di Giuseppe was in the right place to bang home the rebound.
“We’ve practiced that a couple times,” Di Giuseppe said. “It slows it down. I think it confused them a little bit. It worked out there. You’ll probably see that more often going forward.”
Hanifin has had a good rookie season. Before Thursday night, he had played in 64 games, scoring three goals and 11 assists. His 65th game, however, was special. At the start of warm-ups, his teammates sent him out for a solo twirl around the Carolina end. By night’s end, Hanifin had added two assists, including his highlight overtime helper, in 17:42 of ice time.
“It was a really cool experience,” Hanifin said. “It was my first game here in the NHL. Just to be able to go out there and get a win in front of all my family and friends is definitely a really cool experience.”