Just win baby.
About this time last year, the Hurricanes shot out of the game in their 2016-17 season opener and built a 4-1 lead through two periods only to see the game end with a disheartening 5-4 loss in overtime. The loss extended a run of opening game losses that stretched back to a schedule oddity in 2010-11 that saw the Hurricanes play and win their first two games in Finland. If you want a season-opening win in North America then one has to go all the way back to the 2008-09 season which is a full two years before the arrival of Jeff Skinner. Cam Ward and Justin Williams are the only two Hurricanes players who played for the Hurricanes that season, and the fact that Justin Williams has played for two other teams and been away for almost a decade since then tells you just how long the drought is.
The 2017-18 season is about changing the trajectory and reaching the playoffs. Say what you will before or afterward and win or lose about it being only one game, but Saturday’s home opener marks an opportunity change the trajectory and diverge from the recent losing history.
For the game day details, I highly recommend Michael Smith’s preview at CarolinaHurricanes.com where he details the lineup and other specifics. Per usual, my preview will jump straight into a handful of items that I will be watching closely for Saturday’s game.
‘What I’m watching’
My what I’m watching focus hones in on a handful of players who were trending in the right direction at the end of the 2016-17 and for whom maintaining that trajectory will have a huge say in how the 2017-18 NHL season finishes up for the Carolina Hurricanes. I then cheat and add one more player simply because of his importance.
1) Noah Hanifin
I am on (broken) record as really liking Noah Hanifin’s preseason. He also finished the 2016-17 season strong after a ‘meh’ at best first two-thirds of the season. Could he be ready to rise up and become the player that everyone hoped for when he landed at #5 in the 2016 NHL Draft? On Saturday and early in the season in general I will be watching Noah Hanifin closely to try to get a read on his level of play. More significant than statistics or scoring points will be closely watching to see if he brings the same preseason level of play that was more aggressive and assertive with and without the puck.
2) Elias Lindholm
He is another player who has taken awhile to develop but seemed to suddenly have a switch flip for him at about the midway point of the 2016-17 season. It started with a noticeably higher level of physical engagement and finished with a bit more scoring down the stretch. Lindholm’s preseason was light on the bulldog type of play that he brought consistently in the second half of 2016-17. On Saturday and early in the season, I will be watching Lindholm closely to see if he can again flip the switch on intensity and level of engagement now that the regular season is here.
3) Justin Faulk
Like Hanifin, I thought Faulk’s play on the defensive side of the puck was ‘meh’ at best through the first two-thirds of the 2016-17 season. He had a strong campaign offensively, and like Hanifin, had a strong finish after the trade deadline. Now wearing a ‘C’, I will be watching Justin Faulk who has historically been a slow starter to see if he can find the higher gear defensively right out of the gate.
4) Scott Darling
No pressure, but Scott Darling could prove to be the single most important player on the Hurricanes roster for the 2017-18 season. After multiple years of sub-par netminding, Francis made a move to seize one of the top options on the market this summer. Darling must make a significant transition in terms of team and more importantly role. Especially after a delayed preseason due to a minor injury, I will be watching Scott Darling on Saturday to see if he can hit the ground running, avoid any adversity right out of the gate and look capable of boosting the Hurricanes to at least league average goaltending if not better.
Hockey probably more than any other professional sport is one where every player has an impact. Identifying four players who will get an extra bit of focus on Saturday is NOT to say that the rest of the lineup is not also worth watching.
I am curious to see if Justin Williams can be a catalyst for Teuvo Teravainen more consistently playing closer to his ceiling if they play together.
I am eager to see if Martin Necas or Janne Kuokkanen can parachute right into the NHL and perform following the Hurricanes recent success in this regard with Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.
I will be watching to gather an early indication of how quickly Haydn Fleury will be able to make the transition to the NHL level.
And more than anything else, I will be there with family and friends watching to see if the Carolina Hurricanes can break the season opening losing streak and offer early hope that the 2017-18 season will be different.
The puck drops at PNC Arena at about 7:07pm with player introductions about 20 minutes prior to that!