Fresh on the heels of a strong 5-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Saturday, the Hurricanes 5-game home stand continues tonight against the San Jose Sharks.
It is a little chilly, but those out for lunch in downtown Raleigh or perhaps the North Hills area should keep an eye out for Joe Thornton and Brent Burns out for their usual game-day walk. The bearded wonders should be fairly easy to spot. If that is not enough, the shirtless Thornton should make it even easier.
As far as the business of 7pm hockey goes, the game is a big one for the Hurricanes. Any ‘do or die’, ‘now or never’ or similar cliches are overdone this early in the season, but to climb into the 2016-17 season in a meaningful way, the Hurricanes will need to string together more than an occasional good outing and win. In 14 games, the Hurricanes have had a couple multi-game point streaks but have yet to win 2 games in a row. In addition, the Hurricanes will need to take advantage of home ice. Thus far, the Canes are a meager 2-3-0 on home ice. As the season creeps closer to the one-quarter mark, now is as good of a time as any to make a statement and a move upward.
The Hurricanes lineup is expected to get a boost from the return of Justin Faulk and is otherwise expected to be pretty similar to the group that won on Saturday.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the San Jose Sharks
1) The second level at forward
Thus far in the 2016-17, the Hurricanes have been top heavy lineup-wise.
Led by Jeff Skinner and his dynamic play, the top line of Skinner/Rask/Stempniak has been good overall and led the charge scoring-wise. But Coach Bill Peters has struggled to find any working combination below that top level. Nordstrom/Staal/Nestrasil started together, has been apart and has been reunited mostly without reclaiming their magic from last winter. The young, skilled line of Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen that looked so promising in preseason was a dud in a decent run together in the regular season.
But just maybe Peters has found something. The newly-minted line of Aho/Staal/Teravainen was absolutely phenomenal on Saturday (detailed game recap is HERE)and put the team on its back offensively scoring a whopping 4 goals. The trio will obviously start Tuesday’s game together. I will be anxiously watching to see if that line can continue its strong play and make the Hurricanes 2 lines deep at forward. The top 2 lines eat up nearly two-thirds of the ice time, so finding a second line would go a long way to giving Peters a foundational set of players that he can roll with through much of games.
2) The second (and third) level on defense
Over the course of the season, young defensemen Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have risen up together to become the team’s top defense pairing and have not looked in over their heads in the process. One could quibble about needing a little bit more offense from the duo if it is going to be a top pairing (and there has been more in that regard too), but the pairing has been sound and solid defensively which is priority 1 and a strong foundation from which to build.
But the dirty little secret is that the Hurricanes have struggled on the blue line below that top level. Justin Faulk has been a driver offensively, but the dirty little secret is that both he and veteran Ron Hainsey were too often right in the middle of the Hurricanes defensive struggles early in the season. It is really tough to win consistently in the NHL if unable to run 2 defensive pairs out that can be counted on to be solid and sound. With Faulk’s return and the expectation that he reunites with Ron Hainsey, Tuesday is another fresh start for the 2 most senior Hurricanes defensemen.
Below that, the third pairing has also been a struggle. It has reached the point where Noah Hanifin, who has been a fixture in the third pairing, probably needs to check in at the front desk at PNC Arena to see who he is working with that night. The revolving door of partners for Hanifin has included Jakub Nakladal (who was released yesterday), Klas Dahlbeck, Ryan Murphy and likely now Matt Tennyson tonight with a small dose of Ron Hainsey during Faulk’s absence. That is A LOT of change for only 14 games of season for Noah Hanifin. The expectation is that Hanifin will pair with Matt Tennyson who made his Hurricanes debut on Saturday and played reasonably well. Here is hoping that try #4 to find Hanifin a regular defense partner works out.
3) The goaltending
Don’t look now, but Cam Ward has quietly pushed his way into the 2016-17 season. As I wrote in my “3 burning questions post yesterday, Ward has been at least ‘good enough’ for the most part starting with the home opener against the Rangers. But especially if settling for ‘good enough’, it will not be good enough to alternate on an every-couple-weeks basis. I continue to watch Cam Ward and the goaltending situation closely on a game by game basis.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm at PNC Arena.