After picking up a point with an overtime loss but not really reversing the recent negative trend, the Hurricanes get another shot at home on Saturday afternoon against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The game might be a better measure of what progress was made during the week of practice. I really think that the Blue Jackets are just a tough match up stylistically for the Canes with the structured defense and consistency advancing pucks to the walls that mostly eliminates transition offense. So the Blackhawks on Saturday are maybe a slightly more favorable match up to try to rebound. The Blackhawks enter the game trying to play their way into the 2019-20 season. The team is 2-4-2 with three straight losses (one in overtime) and coming off a tough 4-1 loss on Thursday. They should be feisty and hungry on Saturday afternoon in Raleigh.
But more significant than the opponent is the fact that the Hurricanes are suddenly also trying to find their way. The team’s 6-3-1 record still represents a playoff pace start, but the team’s 1-3-1 record in the last five games is obviously trending negative. The problems which seem to outnumber positives right now despite the positive record have been detailed this week.
At practice on Friday, Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour made a couple changes at practice that lined up with Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe posted just hours earlier. It is great to see that the team’s bench boss also spends his morning coffee time at the site (he says facetiously :-)). Per point #1, Andrei Svechnikov has been bumped up to Sebastian Aho’s line. I think this makes a ton of sense putting both Aho and Svechnikov in the best positions possible to find a spark and start scoring more goals. Per point #3, Jake Gardiner has moved up into the slot next to Brett Pesce suggesting that perhaps the coaching staff had also noticed that Joel Edmundson had struggled a bit in recent games. But regardless of lineup tinkering, I think the 2019-20 Carolina Hurricanes are still very much a time trying to find an identity ideally rooted in the same forecheck that was the foundation for the 2018-19 season.
My watch points follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Chicago Blackhawks
1) Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov
One huge ‘this team can be better’ positive right now is the fact that in general the team is scoring enough despite the fact that Svechnikov, Aho and Niederreiter were all goal-less entering Thursday’s game. Aho finally broke through, but the team gets better when all of these scorers start finding the net more. Per Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I am a huge fan of seeing if Aho and Svechnikov can rise together. The upside scoring-wise is significant but so is the downside defensively with both being a bit spotty in that regard so far in 2019-20. Paint me as wildly optimistic about this pairing. The upside is so high, and I think playing with another top-end offensive player will bring out the best in Svechnikov.
2) 60 minutes of heads down
The front part of the season featured the Hurricanes scoring in bunches and riding it to wins. The recent downturn still sees the Hurricanes scoring in bursts but not being able to put together enough else to convert that to a win. Both of the losses to Columbus saw the Hurricanes leading. The games out West, even including the win, over Los Angeles fixed mixed efforts with extended downturns. Though it is possible to win with less than 60 minutes of intensity, the Hurricanes recent woes show that that formula is not a consistent one. On Saturday, I will be watching to see if the Canes can dial it up early and maintain for a full 60 minutes or more of hockey.
3) Petr Mrazek
His game on Thursday was an odd one. He was fine early, not really being at fault for the first goal against. Then he was stellar holding the fort for just about half of the second period when the rest of the team checked out. He also did his best to give his team a chance in overtime with some good saves early. But the second half of the second period was ‘meh’ with a goal that he seemed to track but still go off his glove and into the net and then getting beat from a tough angle when he maybe overcommitted a bit early. The game was not a horrible one for Mrazek, but it was not great either. After being pulled in Friday’s loss, he arguably is till trying to rebound. With the team in total struggling a bit right now, a strong Petr Mrazek could help calm things. As such, he continues to be a watch point.
4) The forecheck
I continue to be believe that the single biggest difference-maker out there right now is the potential re-emergence of a strong forecheck. When the team forechecks well, there is carry over to other parts of the game. The team generates offense across four lines when it is maintaining pressure from line to line, and equally significantly the forecheck when clicking greatly decreases the pressure on the defense in the neutral and defensive zones.
The puck drops at an odd 1pm with the NC State Fair right next door. For those who have the wherewithal and stamina, why would you not go for a doubleheader of Canes hockey followed by crazy fried stuff?