As is often the case for NHL teams, whether the Carolina Hurricanes week turns out positive or negative hangs in the balance with the final game to be played on Sunday in Raleigh against the New York Islanders.
With a win, the Hurricanes will notch their second consecutive week at two games above .500. The team was 2-0-1 last week and enters Sunday’s game against the New York Islanders with a 2-1 record this week. With a loss, the Hurricanes will simply tread water at 2-2 and with both of the two losses being to the Islanders who are a team that is competing for one of the last few playoff spots that the Hurricanes are targeting.
The game is what I call a ‘fair back-to-back’ for which both teams played and traveled the night before. These games run the gamut. Maybe most common is the game where both teams are sluggish and sloppy which makes for ugly hockey that is often decided by a break or two or the lowest number of mistakes. Oftentimes too, one team seems to find a higher gear despite the theoretically equal physical situation entering the game. Regardless of level of play, the game is another important one that could stretch the Hurricanes positive run to eight games with only one regulation loss.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Islanders
1) Righting the ship in terms of defensive breakdowns
A hallmark of the Hurricanes point streak was steady and solid play defensively. The loss to the Islanders on Thursday was driven by intermittent defensive breakdowns and Scott Darling’s inability to find enough big saves to bail out the defense. On Saturday, the scoreboard might suggest otherwise, but my assessment was that the defensive breakdowns were again far too numerous. Darling rebounded and played a phenomenal game covering up the mess, but the formula of relying heavily on the goalie to win games that maybe are not deserved based on defensive play is a risky one. On Sunday, I will be watching to see if the Hurricanes can clean things up defensively especially given the challenging situation that could see the players a bit weary playing the second half a back-to-back that is also the third game in four days with travel before each.
2) Who has the legs and can Bill Peters identify them
As noted above, these games where both teams played and traveled the night before can be interesting. The games in general can be sluggish and sloppy, but within the general theme, things can vary significantly from player to player. Playing against other players who maybe are a step slow, some players can actually have an advantage whereas others just look to be stuck in the mud.
The ability of the coaching staff to quickly figure out who has it and who does not can and adjusting combinations, ice time and match ups accordingly can make a huge difference in a game like this.
So on Sunday, I will be watching to see how Bill Peters and his coaching staff manage the lineup. In terms of specific players, I will be watching Aho/Staal/Teravainen. The trio has momentum right now and is centered by Staal whose strength usually rises up in games that demand it. On the caution side, I will also be watching the Slavin/Pesce pairing closely. Despite still being sound defensively and mostly staying out of the mess that game, I thought Brett Pesce did not have his usual quick first stride or two at times during the loss the Islanders. Then on Saturday, I thought Jaccob Slavin made a number of very good plays defensively with his stick, but also looked a tiny bit slow relative to his top gear when he uncharacteristically had two players (both Jack Eichel and Jordan Nolan) blow right by him off the rush. If Peters chooses to match Slavin/Pesce against John Tavares’ line, they will need to dip into the reserves and find their highest gear for Sunday’s game.
In addition, the schedule looking forward also makes this a game during which Bill Peters can spend whatever he needs to for a win if necessary. The week ahead sees two off days to recuperate before three home games with a day off between each. With a few days off, a lighter schedule and no travel, Peters can shorten the bench a bit if he needs to.
So at a high level, I will be watching closely to see how Peters’ manages the lineup, combinations and ice time to pull the right levers to net a win.
3) Cam Ward
I have not seen an official announcement yet, but I will be surprised if Cam Ward does not start on Sunday. Ward has settled nicely into the backup goalie slot and been a big positive thus far on the season despite being in a smaller role. With the Canes defense suddenly trending for a couple games in the wrong direction breakdown-wise and also playing their third game in four nights, there is a chance that Ward will be asked to clean up a few messes with a big save or two. On Sunday, I will be watching early to see if he again seems to be on his game such that he can be steady and have a calming influence on the Hurricanes team in front of him.
4) Jeff Skinner
It is just a hunch, but if this game is a bit slow, sluggish and sloppy, could Jeff Skinner find a higher gear and exploit the situation? He has been a bit quieter of late and seems due for one of those games where he puts the team on his back offensively and leads the charge for a win. On Sunday, I will be watching to see if Jeff Skinner or possibly someone else can rise above fray, especially if the game is the sluggish variety.
The puck drops earlier than usual at 5pm at PNC Arena and is also a special day for the Hurricanes’ “Hockey Fights Cancer” night.