After stumbling a bit with two straight losses at home, the Hurricanes take to the road for a four-game road trip that starts in Arizona against the Coyotes. Like the Hurricanes, the Coyotes were a 2018 lottery entry. But with the topsy-turvy start to the 2018-19 season that now sees that Islanders atop the Metropolitan Division and the Canadiens also in a playoff spot, the Coyotes are no slouch either with a 6-5-0 mark and more significantly a four-game winning streak.
On the Canes side, the game and the road trip in total will be more inwardly focused on trying to find a new rhythm after a fast start but a decline since then. Issues still remain with the penalty kill and depth scoring, and with Scott Darling back in the mix, the goalie position continues to be a question mark with high upside but also significant uncertainty.
Against that back drop, here is what I am watching for tonight’s first round of #CanesAfterDark.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Arizona Coyotes
With a back-to-back set, Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek figure to split the Friday and Saturday starts. Regardless of who plays on Friday, goaltending continues to be at or near the top of the list of watch points. Darling looked very good for half of a game and then not very good for the second half in his 2018-19 debut. So the glass half full view would be that there was enough there to build on. Mrazek has been decent at times and ‘meh’ at others. His record benefited from the Canes scoring surge early, but I would not say that he has found a groove yet. Regardless of who plays on Friday, I will be watching for a sign that one of the two netminders is ready to emerge and seize the #1 slot.
2) The penalty kill
Heading into the Detroit Red Wings game last Monday, the Hurricanes were dead last in both power play and penalty kill proficiency. With a couple changes, the power play found a spark and put up a couple two-goal games to start climbing the ladder to 25th in the league. Hopefully, that upward trajectory continues. But the penalty kill is still mired in a season-long slump and sits at deal last in the NHL with only a 66.7 percent successful kill rate. I wrote a bit about the team’s feast or famine forechecking style that fairly regularly puts up big shifts where Jordan Martinook, Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn pin the opponent in their defensive zone. But too often too the opposition is getting behind the upfront pressure, flying through the neutral zone and attacking off the rush without even setting up. With a couple days off to practice, I will be watching to see what adjustments, if any, Brind’Amour and his staff have made tactically and in terms of personnel combinations.
3) Rod Brind’Amour/tactical changes
Thus far, Brind’Amour has been incredibly patient with his line combinations and defense pairings. The only real tinkering has been swapping players in and out of what was originally the third line centered by Martin Necas. The other three lines and all three defense pairings have otherwise been kept together pretty consistently through 12 games. At a basic level, I like Brind’Amour’s approach and very much prefer a leaning toward patience versus the random blender approach that Bill Peters used at times. That said, I think the time is now for something more than ‘we need to be better’ on the penalty kill, and I also think the path to more depth scoring might need to come from lineup changes. In his post-game press conference on Tuesday, Brind’Amour expressed satisfaction with the volume of chances the team was getting and did not suggest that changes were imminent. On Friday, I will be watching to see if Brind’Amour had a change of heart during the days off and/or if he changes things in game if the team starts slowly.
Ready your coffee, adult beverages or whatever else you need for Canes hockey after midnight. This could be a first big Canes ice cream event for me especially give the two-game losing streak as an entry point. The puck drops at 10pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.