For today’s daily post, I wrote about how critical the upcoming 5-game home stand could be to the end results for the 2016-17 season. The short version is that this is exactly where the 2015-16 season died, and the current hole of 2 games under .500 can quickly become too much if the team does not produce on home ice. The series of 5 games also offers an all-important look into if and how well the Hurricanes can match up against the top teams in the league and also if Coach Bill Peters can pull some levers to gain match up advantages that lead to wins on home ice.
Thursday’s start to the home run sees the Hurricanes host an Anaheim Ducks team that played, lost in overtime in Columbus and traveled yesterday. Theoretically, the Hurricanes should have a physical advantage tonight. The game is 1 of 3 in the 5-game set that has a rested Hurricanes team matched against an opponent that played and traveled the night before.
‘What I’m watching’ for the kick off to the home stand
1) Jordan Staal’s line
After a couple false starts in 2016-17 that saw the group separated and Andrej Nestrasil even scratched for a few games, the trio was reunited on Tuesday and played arguably its best game of the season. I continue to think that this line regaining its elite checking line form from last winter is critical to the Hurricanes success especially on home ice. The current home stand sees a run of elite scoring lines – Ritchie/Getzlaf/Perry, Ovechkin/Backstrom/Oshie and then Pavelski/Thornton/Ward. The formula for addressing this and winning last winter was to match Nordstrom/Staal/Nestrasil against them all night and expect to at least break even. No doubt, Peters will hope to pull this formula out again. Is this line ready to regain its 2015-16 form and bring 20 minutes of strong puck possession and defensive hockey to neutralize other teams’ best and push the game to the next level? Or is the run from December through February last season just a remnant of the past that cannot be recreated? Tonight’s game and the home stand in total might provide the answer that those questions.
2) You’re in the big leagues now kids
Riding shotgun to Jordan Staal’s line will be the upstart first defense combination of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. And with Justin Faulk out of the lineup and Ron Hainsey sputtering a bit so far in 2016-17, there really is not much for a plan B to shut down or at least slow the big scoring lines that will visit Raleigh over the next 2 weeks. Matched against Taylor Hall’s line most of the night in New Jersey, Slavin and Pesce mostly played well but did have 2 costly coverage breakdowns. One found the net behind Ward and the other required a spectacular save to keep from costing the Hurricanes an overtime berth. That is the incredible challenging of being a first pairing NHL defenseman. Playing well for 18-19 minutes is not quite good enough. When you are on the ice against elite scorers all night, even 2-3 breakdowns/bad shifts can make for a bad night overall and a loss for your team. Is Slavin/Pesce ready for the big time and the challenge of playing against the NHL’s best every night right now? Or are they a good young duo who still need time to get to that level?
3) More sources of offense
A recurring theme in my posts has been the Hurricanes lack of depth scoring that early in the season hid behind strong overall scoring numbers. But the scoring was really just Jeff Skinner and his line and a power play that was surging early on. A sputtering power play and an intermittent game here and there when Jeff Skinner has not put the team on his back has shined a spotlight on the Hurricanes depth scoring issues. Thus far in November, the Hurricanes have scored 6 goals in 4 games and have yet to reach 3 goals after doing so in 6 out of 8 games in October. The team could use a rejuvenated power play on home ice which is a challenge minus trigger man Justin Faulk who will be out for at least the next 2 games with an injury. The team could also use a goal scoring burst from some of the allegedly talented but thus far low scoring young forwards included Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm, Sebastian Aho and Phil Di Giuseppe. Can at least part of this group rise up and chip in offensively to boost the offense? Or will the team continue to be reliant on Jeff Skinner wearing a cape to score enough to win hockey games?
After a slow start, Cam Ward is finding his way into the 2016-17 season. He has now played at least ‘good enough’ if not better in 3 consecutive starts and and 4 out of his last 5. With the stretch of 5 games spaced nicely with no back-to-backs, it is not inconceivable that Coach Bill Peters rides Ward through the home stretch if he continues to play well. The team looks completely different when Ward plays well and covers up at least most of the breakdowns that are decreasing but still too frequent. Has Ward found a rhythm that can carry through the home stand and even better yet the rest of the season? Or are we just witnessing a temporary upswing on a roller coaster ride that will see a downturn again soon.
If 2016-17 is going to happen in earnest for the Hurricanes, I think the time has come for Jordan Staal to play like he did during last season’s surge and be 1 of the team’s 2-3 best players on a nightly basis. He has not been bad so far this season, but I still think he has another gear.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm at PNC Arena.