After an impressive 4-0-2 run in a stretch of 5 out 6 games at home in mid-March, the Hurricanes 2016-17 went on the road to die. The Hurricanes entered a run of 4 straight away fro home with a 9-17-8 road record. But through 3 games the Hurricanes have extended the 2016-17 season with a 2-0-1 mark that could have been 3-0 except for a last-minute game-tying goal in Philadelphia.
Suddenly the Canes are only 5 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with games in hand. The challenge is a big one. With only 10 games remaining, the challenge is a big one. The Hurricanes must both make up ground quickly and leapfrog 3 teams in the sprint to the finish. But the mere fact that people are even debating if it is possible and what it takes is in itself a huge victory. And the fact that the Hurricanes will play a game that matters on March 25 is something not seen in a long time.
The 4-game road trip concludes against the New Jersey Devils. To me, the game looks like a precarious one and potentially a trap. Record-wise, the Devils are the worst team ton the schedule this week. And after a decent first half of the season, the Devils have plummeted in the second half. The team is win-less in March with an 0-6 record. So why then to do I think this game is a dangerous one? First, I think there is some potential for a modest letdown by the Canes after pulling out a big win in Montreal on Thursday and now taking a step down to face a lesser opponent. More significantly, at least as far as playing the Hurricanes go, the Devils are a good hockey team. In 3 previous meetings, the Devils have won all 3 games with the Canes picking up only a lone overtime loss point.
The current last played the New Jersey Devils on home ice with an 11-game point streak on home ice in hand. The Hurricanes laid an egg and lost 3-1. In a back-to-back set in early November, the Canes met a similar fate with a 3-2 overtime loss at home followed immediately by a 4-1 loss in Brooklyn. The Devils have had a knack for slowing transition and turning the game into a grinding station by station, inch by inch possession game without a ton of room to operate or a bunch of chances for the Hurricanes.
Against that backdrop of an incredibly positive entry point in terms of recent play and just simply being in a March 25 game that matters and the precarious situation, here is ‘what I’m watching’ for Saturday night’s game…
‘What I’m watching’ for the Hurricanes versus the New Jersey Devils
1) Legs, intensity level and jump
We have officially reached that part of the schedule where physical advantages/disadvantages game to game can have a huge impact on outcomes. Those who watched the Hurricanes game against the Flyers on Sunday had a firsthand lesson. The Hurricanes had a lead and collected an overtime loss point, but that was misleading based on how significantly the ice was tilted into the Hurricanes end all night. That was a case of the Canes playing the second half of a back to back against rested team, but I think we have reached the point where a ‘no legs’ surprise is possible on any given night. So I will be watching early on to see if the Hurricanes positive outlook and 1 day off is enough to help them find the high gear necessary to keep winning or if instead they hit a physical wall or have a letdown.
2) Firing on all cylinders
Jeff Skinner is in the midst of another of his scoring surges. Justin Faulk continues to play his best defensive hockey of the season. And Jordan Staal continues to fairly quietly solidify 1 line. In short, the leaders are leading right now.
But in addition to that, the volume of contributors has been growing and has played a key role in the 9-game points streak. Eddie Lack is playing well and winning. Elias Lindholm continues on an upward trajectory in what has become a transformation into a power forward. Lee Stempniak and Derek Ryan have sat below Jeff Skinner’s headlining scoring but have been incredibly good of late and kicked in game-deciding types of plays in each of the past 2 wins. Jaccob Slavin has found a scoring touch to go with the stalwart defense that he has brought all season. Noah Hanifin has stepped into the top 4 and mostly looked pretty good in doing so. I feel like I could literally say something positive about the current trend for the entire Canes roster, and that is what happens when teams go on extended winning streaks. I will be watching to see if the positive vibe around the team right now continues early against the Devils.
3) Jordan Staal and the grinders
If New Jersey even partially has their way like in the other games, they will be happy to generate a game that requires battling to drive the puck forward and the ability to remain patient if the scoring chances are hard to come by. Especially in late March, this is a game made for Jordan Staal and his powerful game and also some of the Hurricanes grinders playing on the lower lines. Is this the game that 1 or more of Phil Di Giuseppe, Brock McGinn or Patrick Brown push onto a the score sheet with an important goal? I will be watching to see if Staal can drive possession and also if the Canes depth forwards can help tilt the ice forward.
The puck drops at about 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.