The New York Rangers entered the 2015-16 NHL season projected to be a leader in the Metropolitan Division and 1 of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. And so far the Rangers have lived up to expectations. The team enters the game in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 10-2-2 record overall and a 5-game winning streak.
To say that Tuesday night is a tough match up is an understatement. But perhaps this game actually sets up well for the Hurricanes. They are not expected to win Tuesday and have 2 home games sitting behind the Rangers match up to still salvage a decent week. The pressure should be off. Could that provide a challenge that boosts play or loosen up a Canes offense that has been sputtering of late? That is what the Hurricanes hope for anyway.
The Hurricanes enter the game with a bit of an identity crisis and still seeking a consistent winning formula. 2 weeks back, the Canes were 3-1 with all 3 wins coming via solid efforts that featured sound defense, good goaltending and just enough offense. But the three wins that started that week were followed by consecutive losses featuring sloppy efforts defensively. Then most recently, the Canes played better but could not score but were bailed out by a goal with 3 seconds left and a third consecutive 3-on-3 win. Last week’s 1-1 record managed to tread water but failed to establish a repeatable formula for winning.
Enter the Rangers who are first in the league in goals against per game and fifth in goals for per game.
Here is ‘what I’m watching’ for Tuesday’s tilt at Madison Square Garden:
1) A return to sound defensive play
If the Canes bring the defensively sloppy brand of hockey that they have played in recent games, the New York Rangers will dissect them by turning mistakes into goals and follow that by squeezing the life out of a Canes offense that has already been on life support most of the season. To have a chance, the Hurricanes need to get back to the sound and solid brand of defense that was a key component in their 3-game winning streak from recently.
2) What does Coach Bill Peters’ line shuffler spit out today, and what is the effect?
The Hurricanes line combinations have been constantly in shuffle mode. Nothing has lasted more than a game or 2 here and there before being chucked back into the shuffler. I have grumbled multiple times about the difficulty building any chemistry or consistency with the constant changes with the forward lines, but it appears that the defense pairings are now also in play. IS NOTHING SACRED?
REPORT FROM CANES MICHAEL SMITH FROM MORNING SKATE HAS HAINSEY/FAULK AND LILES/PESCE. So at least for now, the text below might be a false alarm, but because of Peters’ propensity for tinkering and his inclination recently to pull the blue line into the shuffler, I will leave this here for context just in case.
The norm since Brett Pesce stepped into the lineup has been Hainsey/Faulk, Liles/Pesce, Hanifin/Murphy (with some Jordan in the Hanifin slot). Peters bumped Liles up with Faulk (dropping Hainsey with Pesce) in the previous game and showed that look again at practice this week.
I hate the idea for multiple reasons:
1) “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Canes defense has not been perfect, but given the current set of personnel, it has held its own especially when you consider than Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin are making the jump straight from college to the NHL and that Ryan Murphy is also only 22 years old with modest NHL experience.
2) Potential puck-moving challenges for the second pairing. Brett Pesce has been incredibly good on his own accord jumping straight into a top 4 spot at the NHL level, but his instant chemistry with John-Michael Liles has also been important. Liles has performed the heavy lifting moving the puck up and out of the defensive zone and providing passing outlets. This just is not Ron Hainsey’s greatest skill. When paired with skating/puck movement-limited Brett Bellemore, they seemed to spend too many shifts doing a ‘I don’t want it. Here! You take it.” routine. My concern is that the Rangers will throw the puck behind this duo, forecheck the heck out of it and create turnovers and top grade scoring chances in the process.
3) In the same vein as #2, I HATE the idea of messing with Brett Pesce’s NHL indoctrination at such an early stage especially when considering how quickly and importantly successfully, he is playing right now. He is right at that stage where the ‘I made the NHL!’ adrenaline wears off and the long grind of the NHL season sets in. I worry that Hainsey will not do the masterful job that Liles did supporting when Pesce had the puck and being aggressive moving the puck himself instead of putting Pesce in too many challenging situations.
The forward lines should also be subject to their normal shuffling, so that is something else to watch.
3) Continued success and plus new participants
Though the Hurricanes are still struggling a bit offensively, the number of key players starting to find a rhythm offensively is growing. Jordan Staal has 6 points in his last 5 games after scoring none in the first 9 games. Eric Staal continues to play well despite being held back on the score sheet by a sputtering power play and offense in general. Justin Faulk netted his fifth power play goal in Saturday’s win. And maybe most significantly, Jeff Skinner scored a huge goal with 3 seconds left in regulation. Could it be the spark to get him going offensively? Regardless, to match the Rangers, the Canes will need a strong effort from its leaders.
4) Advanced stats: It is not about shots; it is about ‘shots+traffic’
This game sets up as the classic Canes road loss in which the Canes fire puck after puck at the net and get nothing and Tripp Tracy goes on and on about the hot goalie the Canes are facing. It leaves fans feeling like the Canes were just unfortunate or had bad luck. But especially against a team like the Rangers who will play sound defense and keep things to the outside and against a great goalie in Lundqvist who is playing well and will stop what he sees, the offense is all about doing what the Canes historically have not done well. The task is to get bodies and pucks to the net at the same time.
Every time the Canes shoot the question should be, “Was there traffic?” Only shots+traffic count. Shots by themselves do not.
Cam Ward has put up a few game-stealing type efforts in 2015-16. That might be what it takes to get points in the standings on Tuesday night in New York. At a minimum, one can bet with pretty good certainty that a leaky effort in net will not be enough against a Rangers team that is playing well and an elite goalie in Henrik Lundqvist who is also clicking right now. The margin for error will be small, and Ward will need to play a part if the Canes are to pull off a surprise win.
The puck drops at about 7pm with Tripp and John on Fox. Any kind of points in the standings would be a good night.