Wednesday night’s match up against the New York Rangers will mark the 20th game in the 2017-18 season. The one quarter mark is a good time to make a first assessment of the team and results, and that assessment is positive. Adjusted for games played, the Hurricanes currently sit in a playoff spot and are trending upward with positive 2-0-1 and 3-1-0 records in the last two weeks. But the natural up and down nature of the long NHL season makes for a ‘what have you done for me lately’ grading system where even a short lapse of 7-10 days can quickly give back a month of positive work.
Earlier this week, I wrote an article stating that the next two stretches of schedule could be critical to the Hurricanes’ 2017-18 season. First up is a short run of three straight home games during Thanksgiving week. The week represents a chance to maintain momentum and push farther above .500 before playing virtually all (10 of 12 games) of the next three plus weeks on the road.
Wednesday’s game is also significant because it is another four-point game against a team that could finish in the middle of the Metropolitan Division standings and therefore be one of the teams that the Hurricanes are battling with for a playoff spot come late March and early April.
The New York Rangers started slow but have used a 6-2 record in November to climb back into the tightly-bunch pack of teams in the middle of the Metropolitan Division.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the New York Rangers
1) A return to sounder play defensively
Despite the wins, I was critical of the Hurricanes’ defensive play in both of the two wins last weekend. Scott Darling and Cam Ward each stood on their head at times to convert a fairly shoddy effort defensively in terms of volume of ‘big oopses’ into very few goals against. As much as series of ten bell saves are exciting, relying on them too regularly is not a great recipe for consistent success in the NHL level.
In today’s Daily Cup of Joe, I touched on the fact that Jaccob Slavin has uncharacteristically hit a rough patch over the past few games that has seem him beaten mobility-wise on numerous occasions. Best guess is that he and possibly a few others just hit a stretch where they needed to recharge physically. This week is favorable for that. It started with two days off and is followed by three nicely spaced games at home with no travel.
On Wednsesday against the Rangers, I will be watching to see if the blue line can rebound and get back to their generally solid play that was a hallmark of the Hurricanes success earlier in the month.
2) A second source of scoring
It is not secret that the TSA line has been red hot and has carried the team offensively for more than a week now. Teuvo Teravainen is leading the way, but line mates Jordan Staal and Sebastian Aho have been nearly as good. With each game that passes, I hope for just a couple more in which they are red hot and can do the heavy lifting (or even all of the lifting) scoring-wise. But at some point, the TSA line will slow to some degree, and the team will need to have more scoring balance to continue scoring at a pace that does not require grinding out low-scoring wins.
Elias Lindholm at the center position is worth watching. He has not been bad in 2017-18, and his 43-point scoring pace is not wildly off base, but he just has not looked like the version of himself that seemed to arrive suddenly last December and play a more intense brand of every shift hockey in the second half of 2017-18. Further, McGinn/Ryan/Williams has potential. Both of Williams and McGinn have scored above reasonably expected scoring paces thus far, and Ryans’s strength is his offensive acumen.
On Wednesday night versus the Rangers, I will be watching to see if another line can get going offensively such that the Hurricanes add scoring balance and also the ability to roll momentum through from one line to the next.
3) The star power
As much as hockey is definitely a game in which all 19 players can make a difference in any given game, outcomes are often driven by which team has the best 3-4 players that night. The Penguins’ recent success always starts and ends with Sidney Crosy and Evgeni Malkin. The Blackhawks’ multiple championships included help from depth players but were undoubtedly driven by their strong core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. The best team in the NHL right now is the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they, not surprisingly, are let by arguably the two best players in the league thus far in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
In the past few wins, the Hurricanes have ridden similarly strong play by their top players to wins. Aho/Staal/Teravainen has been better than any and all lines that they have played against, importantly in a scoring not just puck possession/defense kind of way. And last weekend, Darling on Saturday and Ward on Sunday also had a reasonable claim to being the best player on the ice.
Though I am looking for other areas of the Hurricanes game to step up a notch or two, I completely recognize the potential for a couple key players to continue leading the way. As such, I will be watching to see if the TSA line can continue its surge and also to see if Scott Darling can repeat his stellar level of play in his last start on Saturday.
The puck drops at 7:07pm at PNC Arena.