After a much-needed win against the Florida Panthers at home on Tuesday followed by days off, the Hurricanes will retake the ice for a Friday/Saturday back-to-back set with travel. The set starts with a road match up in Columbus on Friday and concludes with a tough back-to-back with travel match up against a resting Chicago team in Raleigh on Saturday.
Columbus represents a sizable challenge. The Blue Jackets emerged out of nowhere as a top team in 2016-17 and are off to a good start in 2017-18 with a 9-6-1 record. Maybe more significantly, the Blue Jackets are probably among the toughest match ups in the league for the Hurricanes in terms of style of play and strengths. The Jackets play a physical brand of hockey with an aggressive forecheck and willingness to take the game to the walls. They also boast a defense that can be pretty effective at funneling the opponent to the outside and allowing perennial Vezina candidate Sergey Bobrovsky to see and stop whatever level and volume savable shots a team can muster.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Columbus Blue Jackets
Against that backdrop, here is ‘what I’m watching’ for tonight’s game…
1a) Ability to dictate style of play
As noted above, Columbus’ style of play is not ideally the brand of hockey that the Hurricanes prefer to play. While there have teams against which the Hurricanes have been able to force pace and a more open style of play, but Columbus has not been one of them. On Friday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can get their skating legs going at least intermittently and push pace out of the defensive zone and through the middle of the rink.
1b) Willingness/ability to put on the hard hats and win physical battles
As noted above, Columbus more than maybe any other team has been able to force its will upon the Hurricanes. Even if the Canes get there way some and get their skating legs going, the game will undoubtedly include its share of physical battles for pucks on the end walls versus Columbus’ aggressive forecheck, on the side walls in their cycling game and in front of the net. The Hurricanes will need to hold their own in these battles.
2) The ability to make things hard on Bobrovsky
This is one of the components of 1b, but I would also like to call it out more specifically because of its importance. Columbus is one of those teams that can be pretty good at funneling the puck to the outside and allowing quantity but not quality of shots. If he Hurricanes settle for playing offense outside of the face-off dots and just hurling shots at the net without any traffic in front, this is easily one of those nights where shot volume could be completely irrelevant. Especially early, I will be watching closely to see if the Hurricanes can push the puck into the teeth of the defense in the middle of the rink and also to see if the Canes can take away Bobrovsky’s eyes with traffic and chaos in front of the crease.
3) Getting the band back together on the blue line
After a solid two-game debut by Roland McKeown, the blue line will return to normal at least peronnel-wise with Brett Pesce’s return. What is less clear (I would check in on Michael Smith’s game day article at CarolinaHurricanes.com after the morning skate.) is that the pairings will be. Hanifin seemed to slide back into the third pairing possibly just to keep Fleury/van Riemsdyk together, but the re-insertion of Pesce adds another dynamic.
Regardless, the expectation entering the season was that the blue line would be one of the strengths that would push the team higher. Thus far, I would say that the realization of this is still a work in progress.
4) More of the same from Scott Darling
He has been solid in his past two starts. With no margin for error in a low-scoring affair on Tuesday, Darling made exactly no errors on the way to a 2-1 win (not counting the empty-netter). With the team still trying to figure things out in terms of the power play and scoring in general, timing is good for an extended run of solid play by Darling.
On the other side of the coin, with a back-to-back set, I would expect the two goalies to split the games. If Ward starts Friday instead of Saturday, I would be looking for a rebound from him. After two very good starts to begin his 2017-18 campaign as a backup, he was not nearly as good in his third start. If he plays on Friday, I will be looking for a return to steady and solid.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolina with John, Tripp and Mike.