After making hay for a big 5-game home stand with a 4-1 mark, the Hurricanes’ schedule completely flips over the next 3 weeks. The team plays 9 of its next 11 on the road including 3 sets of back-to-backs. Right now, the Hurricanes need to play assertive hockey with confidence without taking anything for granted and to ride the current momentum as long as possible.
The Hurricanes enter the game at 7-6-4, above the .500 cut line for the first time this season. The opponent is another rebuilding/upstart team that is led by youth. The Toronto Maple Leafs boast an 8-7-3 record and are similarly trying to play their way up and out of annual draft lottery contention and into the playoff picture. The Leafs’ offense is led by the likes of young guns Mitch Marner, William Nylander and phenom Auston Matthews.
In addition to the first live look at Auston Matthews for Canes fans, the game also features a few other interesting people stories and contrasts. Toronto versus Carolina pits Canes coach Bill Peters against his mentor Mike Babcock. The game also offers a stark contrast in spending to add a goalie. Toronto spent a first round pick, a second round pick and a big 5-year $5 million/year contract to add Frederik Anderson, whereas the Hurricanes played it closer to the vest and re-signing Cam Ward for a modest 2 years at $3.3 million/year.
‘What I’m watching’ for Hurricanes versus Maple Leafs
1) Playing by road rules
At home for the past 5 games, Peters formula for winning included matching Jordan Staal’s line plus Slavin/Pesce against the other teams’ best scoring line as much as he could, opportunistically seeking offensive opportunities for Skinner’s line and mostly using the third and fourth lines situationally.
On the road, the opposing coach will mostly use the last change on face-offs to do differently. My Daily Cup of Joe for Wednesday will delve into this in a bit more detail, but the short version is that Peters will likely send Staal’s line possibly with Slavin/Pesce to start the game at which point Mike Babcock will immediately steer his top scoring line around this match up. In addition, opposing coaches will have more opportunities to opportunistically try to pick on the Canes third and fourth lines despite the fact that Peters would prefer the opposite.
The road will require the Canes lineup to be more air tight from top to bottom regardless of match up or situation.
2) Jordan Staal rising
He was utterly superb in Sunday’s game despite not getting on the score sheet. In a physical game, he was a physical force on the walls and transporting the puck and led the Hurricanes successful effort to match the Jets physicality and even claim a few power plays when the Canes stayed inside the whistles and rules and the Jets came off their discipline. Staal also won an astounding 19 of 22 face-offs more or less assuring that his line started with the puck on their sticks.
I continue to think that for the Hurricanes to be successful in 2016-17, Jordan Staal must be 1 of the team’s 2-3 best players throughout the season. That is how it was when the Hurricanes were good for the 3 months in the middle of the 2015-16 season. When he is playing well, his play can have the effect of tilting the ice into the offensive zone for half to two-thirds of the game. Winning face-offs drives possession obviously but so does winning pucks in the defensive zone and carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone with control. And when Staal’s line can keep the puck in the offensive zone, it means that the next line over the wall often starts with an offensive zone face-off or retrieving a dump into the Hurricanes end after the opponent finally wins the puck but is forced to dump it to change lines at the end of a long shift defending.
3) The bottom half of the roster against challenges
During the home stand, the bottom half of the roster was solid. The newly-built fourth line of Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg has contributed with a huge game-winning goal late in the game against San Jose by Joakim Nordstrom, drawn penalties and generally stayed out of trouble defensively. The current third line of McGinn/Ryan/Stempniak has had shifts hemmed in their own end a bit but also shifts in which they attacked and created scoring chances.
On the road, Peters will have less control over who the bottom 2 lines get matched against, so they will need to be sound and solid when they find an occasional shift against a top-end scoring line. The same will be true for the bottom defense pairing of Noah Hanifin and Matt Tennyson. The duo has played well together but will see more tests against top lines on the road.
For coaches, home games are about identifying desired match ups, working the bench to get those match ups and exploiting them. Road games are much more about having a lineup that is sound from top to bottom and can withstand the occasional test.
4) The goaltending
Out of fear of jinxing a good thing, this will remain on the list indefinitely even as it fades as a concern behind the strong play of Cam Ward.
The puck drops a little bit after 7pm with John, Tripp and Mike on Fox Sports Southeast (not usual Fox Sports Carolinas for this one).