Through 15 games which is just past the quarter mark of the 2020-21 season, the race for the Central Division title is between three teams — the Florida Panthers, Tampa Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. The situation is subject to change over the course of the long and winding NHL season, but as of right now those the three best teams. With some COVID schedule effects, the Hurricanes have played Tampa Bay and Florida only once each thus far. Both games finished regulation as ties and were decided in overtime with the Hurricanes picking up a great 1-0 win over the Lightning despite missing a bunch of players because of COVID protocol and the more recent overtime loss to the Panthers.
On Saturday, the Hurricanes will start a run of four straight games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The series will have something to say about the Central Division standings but maybe equally importantly the games could serve as a good early opportunity to measure just where the Canes are against the team that is arguably the slight favorite to emerge from the division in the playoffs.
My watch points for tonight’s game follow.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Ability to play up to level of competition
Despite the Hurricanes impressive 11-3-1 record, the team has at times played to the level of its competition but been able to emerge victorious because of the ability to score in bunches. The four-game set against the Lightning will likely not offer as much margin for error and therefor will challenge the team to play a steadier and more consistent level of hockey. I will be watching on Saturday to see if the bigger challenge can boost the Hurricanes consistency.
2) Matching up line for line
One of the hallmarks of most top teams in the NHL today is lineup depth. Top teams do have elite players, but they are also deep in terms of getting significant scoring across multiple lines and having bottom six lines that can force their style of play on other teams’ scoring lines. Thus far in 2020-21, the Hurricanes scoring depth has been nothing short of tremendous. Saturday’s game and the series in general presents an opportunity to show that the gains can be maintained against top-tier competition.
3) Jaccob Slavin / Dougie Hamilton
The arrival of the playoff Carolina Hurricanes came with a deep and solid blue line at the core. Thus far in 2020-21, the team’s success has been driven more by scoring. The defense has had ups and downs especially in the top pairing. Hamilton has struggled at times throughout, and Slavin took some time to get back up to speed after his COVID layoff. In recent games, both Hamilton and Slavin have seemingly been finding a higher gear. The upcoming four-game set will present a good test to see how they hold up against top-tier scorers.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with Tripp, Mike, Abby and Shane.