Despite some struggles along the way, the Carolina Hurricanes have posted a respectable 3-3 record through 6 games on the 7-game North Carolina State Fair road trip. The finale is in Long Island…errr…I mean Brooklyn against the Islanders on Thursday night. With a win, the Hurricanes will collect 8 points in 7 games and climb to within 2 wins of being break even on the season which would be phenomenal considering they left home at minus 3. An OTL point treads water at 7 points in 7 road games. And even a loss leaves the team at 3-4 which is not catastrophic.
The Hurricanes enter the game coming off a solid 3-1 win in Detroit on Tuesday and looking at a back-to-back on Friday. It would be great to ride the momentum from Tuesday and collect points before trying to do the back-t0-back thing. In 2 previous tries at the second half of a back-to-back the Canes are 0-2 and have been outscored 9-3. Tuesday’s win was a mixed bag, that I would call two-thirds good. Cam Ward was again solid in net allowing only 1 goal. The defense played arguably its most sound game of the season not counting a couple dominant performances in which the team did not really have to play much defense because it was constantly on the attack. But as has been the case most of the season, the offense left much to be desired.
Here is hoping that the Canes can bring the goaltending and sound defensive play and somehow get the offense going too.
Here is what I will be watching in Thursday’s game:
1) Eddie Lack and help from the D at the start.
Lack struggled in his last start Saturday in San Jose, but the defense offered exactly no help early in the game to get a potentially rusty goalie into the game safely. The first chance he saw was Tomas Hertl steaming toward him from the face-off circle when he inside-outed Noah Hanifin, and the second and third shots were rebound attempts by Sharks players who won the race to the net. Shortly thereafter (shot number 5) featured nearly the equivalent of a breakaway from between the circles when Ryan Murphy played the pass a bit too aggressively leaving Ward to walk in alone. And with that Lack was off to a shaky start and on his way to a rough outing.
As an NHL goalie, one would hope for Lack to recover. But one would also hope for the team to do a much better job at handing a rusty backup a less challenging start.
With Lack pulled after 4 goals in that outing, it is even more important for the Canes to play a sound game early and give Lack the chance to knock off rust, build confidence and get his feet under him.
2) The lines and some semblance of chemistry.
With a sluggish game offensively on Tuesday, Coach Bill Peters was quick to turn back on the automatic line shuffling machine. By the midway point, the lines had changed.
The 2 things that I am most curious about are related. First, does Peters go back to Skinner/Nash/Versteeg? If not, where does Riley Nash play? I think he has been the Canes best forward in the 2 games since his return for injury, so he could be a front runner to be an offensive difference-maker and even to help spark another player or 2.
3) Offense from the back end.
Justin Faulk has provided offense all season primarily on the power play, but offense from the rest of the blue line in terms of both raw goals and playmaking to create chances for the forwards has been light. The hole left by James Wisniewski’s injury continues to grow with Ron Hainsey recording the first non-Justin Faulk defenseman goal in game 9, and the set of defensemen not named Justin Faulk with only 6 assists between them through 9 games.
But there are signs of potential upside:
- Ryan Murphy is starting to open things up and carry the puck more. His game is supposed to be that of an offensive defenseman. After 9 games to settle into the new season, it is time.
- John-Michael Liles. I continue to like his play overall, but he has only 1 assist. As another puck-moving defenseman logging big minutes, one would hope for at least assists. Just maybe Brett Pesce’s steady stay-home play gives Liles a foundation from which he can go for it more offensively.
- Noah Hanifin is like Murphy though obviously much less experienced. Patience is key for Hanifin, and I think it is unfair to demand too much from Hanifin offensively just yet. But his skill set is that of a skating, puck-carrying defenseman, so at some point one would expect his game to start looking more like that. When it does, could a scoring increase be on the way shortly thereafter?
4) Ability to match intensity.
Awhile back, the Islanders built an identity as a team that was light on skill but would make your life difficult if you did not show up ready to do the work and match the Isles high compete level. That identity is still there, but now so is the talent. If the Canes play this game like they are dragging at the end of a long road trip, they could find themselves in a hole early. Especially with the way the offense is struggling, early deficits especially on the road are tough to overcome.
5) Special teams.
The Hurricanes penalty kill seems to be rounding into form. The Hurricanes had a 2014-15ish effort on Tuesday disrupting the Wings the entire way up the ice such that the team did not have to defend too much inside the defensive zone. The other side of the coin is a power play that has yet to get on track this season. The Isles ice more than their fair share of high-end offensive skill, so avoiding a special teams war altogether would be good as would the Canes power play waking up at the right time.
Especially with Eddie Lack in net, this could be a huge win. Get Lack back on track. Finish the road trip strong. Build some momentum with consecutive wins. And get back on home ice quickly on Friday with your #1 back in net. The start especially for Lack and the defense is critical. If the Canes win, the post-game notes likely feature “rebound from Eddie Lack” and “defense continues strong play.” And I will take Riley Nash boosting 1 line scoring-wise as a wildcard.
The puck drops at about 7pm with John, Tripp and Michelle.